Abraham Lincoln is the most famous President of the United States, and is famous for two things: being assassinated in a theater and “freeing the slaves”. The latter is what led to the former, and is the thing that Honest Abe will forever be credited for. After more than a dozen cinematic retellings of his story, it is safe to say that we throughly know who the man was and what he accomplished. For some, the story of slavery ended there, for others, heroes like Harriet Tubman and the conductors of the Underground Railroad are the reason why slavery was abolished. Yet, it is their stories that are lacking representation in the biopic genre.
In 2019, Focus Features will distribute the first feature-length film to focus on Harriet Tubman; the woman who is synonymous with the true meaning of hero. There is no shortage of slavery films, but it is rather appalling that it has taken so long for a film to be made about this accomplished abolitionist. In Kasi Lemmons’ latest feature we follow Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) as a young woman at the beginning of her journey to becoming the famed conductor of the Underground Railroad. She and her family are slaves to a man who has no business being mentioned. She is married, and hopes for freedom so that her own children can be born free.
As is common in most tales of slavery, our central slave does not have an easy life. Obstacles are put in their way and they are left to the mercy of their white masters. Harriet, whose slave name was Minty, takes matters into her own hands, and runs. Harriet has help along the way, but it is her desperate desire for freedom and the voice of God who guides her to the promised land.
From that point forward, the biopic is fairly standard and does not reinvent the wheel, with the exception of the portrayal of Harriet’s connection to her faith. Very few biopics have such literal illusions to their hero’s connection with the Almighty. However, Lemmons’ primary goal isn’t to create an epic about this living legend, but rather focuses on the human elements that made Harriet who she was. Harriet was just a person who longed for love, comfort, stability, and most importantly, freedom. She happened to have the conviction and courage to fight for said freedom, and was willing to die for it.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the film is straying away from the horrors of slavery, the horrors that Harriet went through herself before and after being on the run. Lemmons makes a conscious choice to focus on the hopeful aspects of Harriet’s stories, and sidesteps all the gory details. Instead, Lemmons places greater emphasis on Harriet’s relationship with God. This will bring a sigh of relief for some who are done with seeing Black pain, but for others it may be too sanitized. It’s a matter of preference, but Lemmons’ choices are admirable. This is the first film about Harriet Tubman, and there is a lot to contend with. There are many layers to the story that one singular film cannot possibly contain, and Lemmons does fine work focusing on capturing Harriet’s unwavering spirit and faith.
Our leading lady is well cast as Erivo does a fine job balancing Minty the small slave, versus Harriet the larger-than-life legend. Erivo, in a very short span of time, is able to take us on an emotional journey that feels real and lived in. The ensemble that surrounds her doesn’t have a lot to do, but do as great a job as Erivo. Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. are the standouts, with memorable appearances from Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Henry Hunter Hall, who everyone should keep an eye on.
All-in-all, Harriet is a sanitized and palatable depiction of the legendary Moses, freer of slaves. Yes, there is more to Harriet’s story than is depicted in this one film, but what Lemmons presents is an honest and endearing love letter to a woman who has never left our side. The potential for more to be told is there, and perhaps someone will build upon what Lemmons and Erivo have set up.