“Harriet” Movie Review


Anne Rutherford, Reporter

“Harriet” is a 2019 American biographical film directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo as the title character. “Harriet” tells the story of Harriet Tubman, a slave turned abolitionist who rescued approximately 70 slaves using the network of antislavery activists and the secret organization known as the Underground Railroad. 


The film starts before the events that solidified Tubman’s status as one of America’s greatest heroes. She was known as Araminta “Minty” Ross, a slave working at the Brodess plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland alongside her family members, and her husband John (Zackary Momoh); a freed slave. 


Following the sudden death of the plantation leader, his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) blames Minty for the ordeal and makes plans to sell her. Fearing permanent separation from her loved ones and being told by Gideon that her children won’t be born free, Minty flees the plantation and makes her way into Pennsylvania. Upon reaching her destination, Harriet (her self chosen name) is introduced to Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), an entrepreneur who appears to run a Philadelphia boarding house, and William Still (Leslie Odom Jr), a writer and abolitionist who connects Harriet to the Underground Railroad. Though Harriet has found her freedom, she can’t be at peace knowing that her people continue to be exploited and endure the inhumane treatment of slavery. Harriet assumes a disguise and the nickname “Moses”, and embarks on a string of round trips to the south rescuing slaves. With each expedition, her reputation increases with great gratitude from her secret organization, but to much dismay from the southern plantation owners.


Cynthia Erivo gives a charismatic and heartfelt performance as Harriet Tubman, and her screen presence commands attention like a seasoned professional. However her soulful portrayal is not enough to conceal the technical flaws and cliches that threaten to overshadow the compelling story. “Harriet” has many of the recognizable signs of a standard biopic: grandiose speeches, crowd pleasing moments and a hero the audience can root for. Though there’s nothing wrong with including these, the execution is sorely lacking in the weak script and melodramatic acting from the other actors. These elements cause the film to appear pretentious. The audience feels as if they’re watching a chain of events rather than feeling like a part of the story. The dialogue has no depth and goes little beyond the good vs bad narrative. 


John Toll’s cinematography includes many vision and flashback sequences that has a blue saturation and incorporates shaky cam. This visual style looks very poorly done and makes the film look like an episode of a teen drama with a tight budget. 


Hollywood is reputable for its grand biopics, and has had tremendous success in the past. Unfortunately, this film does not reach the heights of its predecessors. The story of Harriet Tubman is one of America’s most inspirational and extraordinary, and the filmmakers don’t do justice to her story. However, the future is full of possibilities and hopefully “Harriet” will not be the final big screen feature that we see of this American icon.