"Harriet" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Co-written by Gregory Allen Howard
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe

‘A Rousing Historical Biopic’

When it comes to the most inspiring freedom fighters in American history, Harriet Tubman is definitely one of them. A renowned African-American abolitionist, Tubman dedicated her life to rescuing slaves in the 1800’s. As the leader of the Underground Railroad, she guided more than 300 black slaves to freedom. Through her admirable acts of courage, Tubman became a heroic figure in African-American history. Given her pivotal role in history, Harriet Tubman’s life seems to deserve the cinematic treatment. Her life story encompasses themes of hope, determination and sacrifice that seem fit for a Hollywood biopic. It is surprising, then, that her extraordinary life has never been depicted on the big-screen.

Now, Kasi Lemmons brings Harriet Tubman’s inspirational story to the big-screen for the first time in her latest film “Harriet”. A somber, gripping and rousing biopic, it offers an insightful look at a heroic figure in American history. With her fifth feature, writer/director Kasi Lemmons has crafted a stirring tribute to Harriet Tubman and her enduring legacy. Packed with captivating cinematography, gorgeous production values and powerful performances from the cast, it is a highly effective historical biopic. Although “Harriet” is undeniably uplifting, ultimately it is not a flawless film. Its story is slightly formulaic, and suffers from a rushed pace that skims over events in Harriet Tubman’s life. Nonetheless, it offers enlightening entertainment that will satisfy fans of historical biopics.

Set in 19th Century America, “Harriet” tells the true story of a courageous woman that fought against slavery. Cynthia Erivo stars in the title role as Harriet Tubman, a fierce woman that works as a slave on a Southern plantation. When her ruthless owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) threatens to sell her off, Harriet decides to escape from slavery and embark on a journey. However, her life forever changes when she discovers the Underground Railroad. As she begins to rescue slaves from imprisonment, Harriet soon becomes a heroic savior of the African-American race.

Few filmmakers are bold enough to confront a sensitive subject like slavery, but writer/director Kasi Lemmons is an exception. Ever since she gained critical acclaim with “Eve’s Bayou” in 1997, Lemmons has proven to be a fantastic black filmmaker with a flair for telling African-American stories. Her directorial debut “Eve’s Bayou” was lauded for its authentic depiction of an estranged girl confronting her dysfunctional black family. With “Harriet”, however, Lemmons has crafted her first historical biopic. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to bring Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary life story to the big-screen, but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Lemmons transports viewers into the life of a runaway slave in the 1800’s. From intimate close-ups to stunning establishing shots, the cinematography immerses viewers in the film’s historical setting. Working alongside cinematographer John Toll, Lemmons creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the horrific nature of slavery. Lemmons excels at recreating the darkest time-period in American history, and her latest feature is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

If themes of slavery do not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Harriet”. The film is well-made, and features the most astonishing production values that you’ll ever see in a historical biopic. The sets, period costumes and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Lemmons proves to be an expert at crafting the costumes for her films. Assisted by award-winning costume-designer Paul Tazewell, Lemmons creates gorgeous costumes that illustrate the growth of characters. For instance, Harriet’s wide range of elaborate dresses convey her development throughout the movie. Whether it is her rags of enslavement or the green corset she wears as an abolitionist, the eye-catching costumes showcase Harriet’s transformation from a helpless slave to heroic savior. Moreover, the musical score is also worthy of appreciation. Terence Blanchard’s gospel score is highly effective. It gives the film a hopeful and uplifting atmosphere that is missing from most slavery biopics. Through impressive production values, Lemmons keeps viewers engrossed in the life of Harriet Tubman.

It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. Every star gets the chance to shine, but the film is mainly a spectacular showcase for its titular lead.

Cynthia Erivo delivers her finest performance to date as Harriet Tubman. In her first ever leading role, Erivo proves to be a formidable actress with a knack for playing iconic historical figures. It is not easy to portray the most celebrated slave in African-American history. It’s a challenging role that requires a great degree of commitment from the actress. However, Erivo pulls it off effortlessly. With riveting expressions, she conveys the courage, resilience and undying spirit of the renowned woman that was determined to eradicate slavery. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the most promising black actresses working today.

The supporting cast is spectacular and also worthy of recognition. Joe Alwyn is amazing and imbues shades of humanity into the detestable slave owner Gideon. Leslie Odom Jr. is outstanding and brings a glimmer of hope to the movie as the abolitionist William Still. And finally, it is hard to not mention Janelle Monáe. As Marie, the singer continues to prove that she has a bright future in the film industry.

Although “Harriet” is undeniably an uplifting biopic, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the storytelling department. The screenplay is slightly formulaic and arguably the film’s primary weakness. Lemmons’ decision to cover every important event in Harriet Tubman’s life is bold and ambitious. However, it doesn’t entirely work. Due to this faulty approach, there are times when the film feels more like a Wikipedia summary rather than a compelling biopic of the historical figure. Moreover, the film suffers from a rushed pace. It hurriedly skims over events in Harriet Tubman’s life. This keeps the story from being engaging on an emotional level unlike the best films in the genre (ex. “12 Years a Slave”). Historical biopics thrive based on the quality of their storytelling, and this is where “Harriet” falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that “Harriet” is a movie that may not appeal to everyone. Given its disturbing subject matter, it may not please mainstream audiences. The film tackles controversial topics such as slavery, systemic racism and spirituality that will upset some viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards gruesome violence may not enjoy the movie. Due to its harrowing depiction of slavery, “Harriet” is one of those films that may not appeal towards commercial audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of historical biopics will definitely enjoy “Harriet” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. A glorious tribute to Harriet Tubman, it proves that her incredible life story is worthy of cinematic treatment. At a time when Hollywood seems to have forgotten Harriet Tubman, it’s a rousing reminder that the stories of heroic slaves are worth retelling on the big-screen.

3.5/5 stars

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