Harriet Tubman was one of the few female conductors of the Underground Railroad and is also one of the historical figures most children learn about in grade school when we’re taught about the Civil War. While I doubt most of us really heard the full truth, when I found out that a movie was being made about her, I jumped at the opportunity to see it. Truth be told, I hoped it would inform audiences about her life and would be as inspirational as history books have depicted. Cynthia Erivo is riveting, her performance was incredible, and the film was as inspirational as I hoped.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet stars Cynthia Erivo in the starring role with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles. In the telling of her story, the writers illustrated that Harriet Tubman led an impressive life. The woman managed to run from Maryland to Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles all on her own in bare feet, surviving falling into a river and then when she realized her family and others still needed rescuing, she went right back into danger to help them. She brought over 70 slaves to safety and was a spy during the Civil War. There was very little that needed to be embellished to make her story compelling.
In presenting her narrative, there are some changes made, most especially with some of the sequence of events but the majority appears to be about condensing the story down to fit movie times and keep the story engaging. The story is well-paced, beginning with Harriet’s escape to freedom, her decision to go back for others, how she became involved in the Underground Railroad and the depiction of her visions. It illustrates her strong religious faith, her belief that God had sent her visions to aid others and while the authenticity of that might be questioned, Harriet herself is said to have believed in her abilities. The visions make for a compelling story and interesting aspect of Harriet’s skills as a conductor. The action sequences were believable and I thoroughly enjoyed the history. I also liked that we don’t get a retelling of slavery, we experience it through Harriet’s eyes.
What truly makes the film shine for me is the stunning acting. Cynthia Eriva was powerful, engaging, and made the character riveting to watch. She has some beautifully compelling scenes when she leaves her family when she finds herself hunted in the North, and when she sings the amazing traditional songs used throughout the film, all to convey the spirit of Harriet Tubman, her strength, independence, and grace. Not only does Cynthia excel but others in the film are equally strong. Leslie Odom Jr is engaging as William Still, a writer, and abolitionist who connects Tubman with the Underground Railroad. He injects some humor into his role and adds details to the story. Clarke Peters’ performance as Harriet’s father is gentle, loving, and full of depth. Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Green is delightfully intelligent in his role. Janelle Monáe is just beautiful in her performance and spirit. Even the darker roles, Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess, Harriet’s slave owner is strong in his performance, his zealotry and rage toward Harriet an important component to the story. Even more amazing is how much each of the performers resembles the characters that they play.
There is very little here to dislike but there were some elements that didn’t work as well. Gideon Brodess isn’t as explained as well as the story needs. We know how much he is obsessed with Harriet and we’re given some hints as to why but nothing truly concrete is ever shown on screen. There are loose ends to that piece of the narrative and it feels incomplete. Beyond that, there is much of Harriet’s history that is compressed but as much as I wanted more, that helped keep the story engaging and the pace quick, without dragging down the film.
Overall, this is a dynamic retelling of Harriet Tubman’s experiences and history. It encapsulates the history of slavery through her experiences and details the courage of Harriet as well as other conductors along The Underground History. For young people, this story should be critical for them to visit and the film makes a brilliant reminder for those of us older. If you love history and riveting stories of courageous women, I highly recommend this movie. Not only is it a true story but the performances are dynamic and compelling. Harriet may be one of the best films of the year.
Rating: 4.5 conductors out of 5.