It’s incredible to think that the figure of Harriet Tubman has not had a biographical feature film. She was one of the most important and impressive figures during 19th century America, helping lead efforts in the Underground Railroad to free slaves. She was recently considered to replace Andrew Jackson on the American 20 dollar bill; however the political events of 2016 have changed that. It has taken up until 2019 to get an onscreen portrayal of the American heroine, but it is finally here.
Harriet (2019) is the true story of Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo) rise from slave escapee to warrior and leader of the Underground Railroad movement. We start off with Tubman as human property on a farm in Maryland. However, she is led by certain “visions” to run away. She is able to make it to Philadelphia, nearly 100 miles away, all by herself. There she meets up with anti-slavery activist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) who begins to employ her boldness and determination to free more slaves.
Harriet Tubman’s life is heavily shrouded in myth and rumor, such as the vagueness of her beginnings as well as her supposed prophetic visions. Director Kasi Lemmons is smart to leave multiple possibilities as to these effects, such as the stated fact that Tubman received head trauma while young. However, Harriet seems to brush by the reality of these visions, begging the question: does it matter if they were real or not? If their inspiration is what turned Tubman into the valiant leader she became, then it matters not if they were sent from God or psychotic.
However, Lemmons is faced with a monumental task: that of bringing the life of this incredible woman and make Harriet of emotional as well as educational value. In many ways, the most important aspect of the film is not its cinematic achievements, but its ability to bring awareness to such a figure and subject. However, because of the heavy responsibilities of paving the way and reviewing decades of Tubman’s life, the film does become diluted. Harriet was also rated PG-13, most likely to have the educational purposes of the film spread wide, however this rating restricts the realistic portrayal of slavery and its violence. Because of this and the rushed pacing that Lemmons employs, the impressive jump from dehumanizing slavery to leader of a rebellion is blunted. The film seems too eager to speed through important events, not letting viewers digest the emotional or character-driven moments. As such the character of Tubman is not as fully realized as probably intentioned.
Cynthia Erivo, however, was at the reins of Tubman’s portrayal, and she is able to make up for a lot of the aspects that were lost in the quick pace of the film. The Tony-winning actress is finally given a lead role in a feature film, after shining on the stage an in menial supporting roles; she shows in Harriet that she is a thespian to be reckoned with. The inner storm and battles that Tubman goes through are so vividly encapsulated by Erivo that you want the camera to linger on her just a bit longer in every scene.
Harriet seemed to have too much riding on its shoulders in order to focus on just the dramatic aspects. The film is able to retain an incredibly important educational value and for that its existence should be lauded. However, from a cinematic point of view Lemmons rushes through too much of Tubman’s life, unable to give her sacrifice and journey the visual merit it deserves. Despite that, a towering Erivo is able to wrangle the presence of her historical character, and leave viewers dumbstruck of Tubman’s real-life achievements.