Harriet Review: Erivo evokes power and compassion as the titular American hero
While there’re a good amount of American historical figures that are delved into through film, schooling, and national holidays, do you ever feel like Harriet Tubman gets the short end of the stick? Generally, when Tubman is brought into the conversation about iconic American figures, she just gets relegated to the underground railroad and then her other accomplishments and her life are simply glossed over. There’s plenty more to the iconic American hero than just the underground railroad and, thankfully, someone is finally deciding to display that as writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet excellently delves into Tubman’s life and gives it the booming sense of power and inspiration it deserves.
The film follows Minty (Cynthia Erivo), who would later change her name to Harriet once she is free, as she escapes from her abusive owners and makes the miraculous journey to freedom that she’ll eventually lead many others on. With this deeper dive, Lemmons and fellow writer Gregory Allen Howard not only explore Tubman’s issues within her helping other slaves and her strong connection with her faith, but also the outlook that other slaves have and the impact of her actions. It was interesting to see Tubman’s initial escape cause such strong ripples that showcased how being slaves heavily impacted their lives outside of the already terrible lives they are forced to live. Essentially, they are forced to adapt to survive and never find permanence in their homes or even their relationships. By delving deeper into the personal struggles that slaves faced, Lemmons and Howard actually create a much more unique look at slaves that isn’t normally delved into.
The main spotlight, though, is definitely on Erivo as she gives an immensely powerful performance. With every scene, she carries the ever-growing confidence and swiftness that drove Tubman to be such a strong figure in freeing slaves. Erivo’s drive and determination in the role will instantly capture any viewer’s heart and I was impressed to see Lemmons utilize Erivo’s physical ability and singing to create a truly unique representation of Tubman. Lemmons also capitalizes on Erivo’s strong performance to elevate the power of certain moments within the film. The moment of Tubman walking to her freedom is so perfectly subtle and personal. Instead of trying to be grandiose in how it depicts Tubman’s triumphant moment, it comes off more meaningful and its power translates excellently to viewers. The impassionate speeches that these kinds of films are known for can definitely take viewers a little out of the moment because of how on-the-nose they feel, but these moments are few and far between and Erivo’s genuine sense of belief keeps viewers engaged – unlike the film’s score and the more religious aspects of Harriet.
For me, the over-zealous score constantly took away from moments it was trying to add to. With each crescendo that attempts to give scenes an overwhelming sense of power and importance, the score nearly undercuts the power that Lemmons brings with the camera and Erivo brings with her performance. It’s just something that’s so distracting and felt unnecessary because the film brings a strong amount of connective power without it. Lemmons also attempts to create more spiritually powerful moments through Tubman receiving visions from God that stems from a head injury from her youth, which is actually a real event that’s associated with Tubman’s history, but I don’t think it comes off in the way that Lemmons intentioned. It’s played off like a superpower and it’s so ridiculous at times that it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s just another element that unnecessarily distracts viewers from Erivo’s stellar performance and the interesting world that’s built through the supporting characters.
There’re some strong supporting performances from Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, and really everyone involved. Together they help shape both the tragic and beaten down life of slavery and the richer life of freedom they all hope to achieve. From the idea of black trackers being hired to hunt down their own people to the obstacles Tubman and Odom Jr.’s William Still face in freeing slaves as tensions rise within the country, the film goes into a good amount of detail that builds a world I haven’t seen much in other films. Even the whole thing with slave owners dubbing the name “Moses” to Tubman was really fascinating as it was one of many examples of how low the slave owners thought of the slaves. This sense of doubt is also explored well as it plays a strong part in how Tubman began to get the upper hand on them and shows why she is such an impactful figure as she constantly pushes past the doubt that is constantly casted upon her.
Harriet is truly a film full of genuine power that excellently tells the story of a heavily under-recognized American hero. Erivo will surely be a big name for awards recognition, which is great because she’s truly an incredibly multi-talented and proven herself to be a new force in the industry. As for Tubman’s story, it’s one that is an immensely pivotal in ending slavery in America and, now, there’s thankfully a film that can represent that.