Telling the long overdue story of Harriet Tubman, the 19th century Maryland slave turned emancipator, Harriet is the sort of worthy biopic that fulfills its function without ever really leaving you blown away. Perhaps following in the footsteps of Steve McQueen’s visceral Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation doesn’t help. Harriet feels a little plodding by comparison, despite it heart firmly being in the right place.
British actress Cynthia Erivo, who made such an impression in McQueen’s 2018 film Widows, plays Harriet, with the just the right measure of stoic resilience. Born as Araminta Ross, her history is a remarkable one, escaping from her bondage and leaving her family behind to make the 100 mile journey cross-country to freedom in Philadelphia. There she renames herself as Harriet Tubman, but her story is only just beginning.
What amazes is how Harriet returns to Maryland, through the harsh wilderness and under cover of darkness, to free her family members and others in a series of daring raids. Inspired by God’s word, Tubman is like a one-woman army, as she braves the slave trackers and her one-time master Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who leads a vendetta against her in his desperation to catch her.
Scripted by director Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, there’s a workmanlike feel to the film which carries audiences along whilst respecting and honouring Tubman. Perhaps Lemmons, the former actress who made her directorial debut with 1997’s Deep South Gothic melodrama Eve’s Bayou, is too reverential towards Tubman, an understandable trait given the woman’s achievements (she later became prominent in the Civil War and worked as an activist for woman’s suffrage).
Featuring support from singer Janelle Monáe as the flamboyant Marie, the boarding house proprietor that Harriet first meets when she arrives in Philly, Lemmons also makes good use of the rural landscape, investing an almost spiritual dimension into the way she and her acclaimed cinematographer John Toll capture Harriet’s surroundings. The resulting film, if nothing else, serves as a fine reminder why Tubman should be on all classroom syllabuses.
Harriet opens on 22 November. For more details, visit here.
1. Stills from Harriet.