Moderator / Reviewer
- Apr 4, 2017
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The story of Harriet Tubman has become one of the key components of our understanding of the of the Underground Railroad back in slave times. There are actually many historic figures who gave their lives, their time, and their money to free the African American men and women held in captivity during the precursor to the Civil War, but Harriet Tubman is the face of the movement if you will. She was even considered for replacing Andrew Jackson on the 20 dollar bill recently, and was a one of the figures that I remember the most when studying the Underground Railroad in grade school. Harriet sort of flew under the radar for me when it was first announced, and even though I was looking forward to it due to the subject matter, I didn’t even see it hit theaters in my perusings. Only after Cynthia Erivo was nominated for an academy award for her portrayal of the titular character did I realize that it had even come out, which made me slightly nervous about the quality of the film. No press, no real word of mouth, just a nomination for best actress. Luckily those fears are put to rest, as Harriet is a very good film that had Cynthia earning that nomination of best actress for sure.
“Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) is a slave who has married a freed black man by the name of John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), and actually has a legally binding contract from her owner’s ancestors giving her her freedom, only for her current owner to deny her that right. Crying out to God to take her master from her, Minty realizes that the only solution for her is to make the run to the North and gain her freedom when her owner’s son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell her, separating her from her family and her freed husband. Making the trip alone, Minty is presumed dead after a near miss incident with the slave hunters, only for her to make her way up to Philadelphia and the Anti-slavery Society, where she hooks up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae) who help her gain her footing as a free woman in the North.
However, Minty is not done yet. She has family back home, and a burden on her heart to help others like she was helped. Going back home under forged documents she attempts to free her family, and actually succeeds against the odds. Realizing that she can do more than just free one or two slaves, Minty dons the name of Harriet, as well as her husband’s name of Tubman, and becomes a full blown “conductor” on the gigantic subversive movement known as the Underground Railroad. She is soon dubbed as “Moses” for her efforts, and becomes one of the most hated conductors in the South. Once her identity is known, Gideon continues a relentless assault on finding her, especially when the fugitive slave act is passed (a law allowing southerners to come North and claim their escaped “property”), only for him to be thwarted by every turn.
One of the biggest boons to the film is that it sticks to the central theme of the Underground Railroad without changing direction, infusing multiple side stories, or trying to gussy it up. This is a story about Harriet Tubman and her mission to free slaves. Too many other historical biopics (ish) try to make it more interesting by throwing in a lot of stuff that never happened just to make a good story. Harriet is much more straight forward and simple thematically, and that actually works to the film’s benefit. The raw performance from Erivo is riveting though, giving it the energy and momentum the film needs. While it’s not a perfect film (the non deviating approach isn’t AS exciting or cinematic compared to needing fluff to pad it out), but it makes for a very good portrayal of an American icon.
PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
• Her Story - Featurette
• Becoming Harriet - Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
Harriet itself doesn’t go straight for Oscar bait like I was expecting, but rather sticks to the simple nature of the story, and builds upon the character of Harriet Tubman as the movie goes along. Cynthia does a great job of anchoring the movie to a single character, and the timeless story is well done on a technical level. It isn’t a “masterpiece” as one would expect for a movie with an academy awards nomination, but I don’t think it has to be. It’s a good biopic that tries very hard to stick to the facts (or as many facts as possible, as all legends from centuries ago have been altered or embellished to some extent) and makes for a very impressive watch. Universal’s tech specs on the disc are near flawless expect for the extras, and I give this one a hearty thumbs up.
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hall
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Written by: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 7.1, Spanish DTS-HD HR 7.1, French DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Runtime: 125 minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: January 28th, 2020
Recommendation: Good Watch