The new movie Harriet based on the life of ‘slave-turned-abolitionist’ Harriet Tubman is an interesting case study of a type of film we don’t get much any more: the family friendly historical biopic. Some people will criticize the film for being safe and hiding from the grizzly details of Harriet’s life and the realities of slavery. These people would be right. However, I see value in these well-made gateway films for families to begin discussions on tough historical topics and how they may relate to current times.
When I was in middle school I saw a TV movie called Race to Freedom: the Underground Railroad starring Courtney B Vance and Alfre Woodard. I haven’t seen this movie since the 90s, and I am sure there is much about it that is dated and maybe even cringe-worthy. But I do remember watching it and the impact it had on me. I was engrossed in the story and it wasn’t long after that I watched Ken Burn’s landmark miniseries on The Civil War (my parents had it recorded from off the TV) and living in Maryland I visited many of the battle sites and memorials of the Civil War.
I’m not trying to excuse a film for historical laziness, but I do think there is a place for a historical drama that softens things a little bit so they are accessible to an entire family. Showing kids content they aren’t ready for doesn’t help inspire them to learn more. It just traumatizes them.
I remember going to a screening of Hacksaw Ridge and a young girl was uncontrollably sobbing after the movie. Urrrgh! That made me so mad. There are other better choices to teach your children about war than something intended for adults (like Steven Spielberg’s War Horse would be a good option or last year’s animated gem Sgt Stubby: An American Hero).
Anyway, that’s a long preface to talking about Harriet. This is a film starring broadway singer Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman (who’s slave name is ‘Minty’). She is a slave married to a free man named John Tubman (Zackary Momoth). Harriet has already been forced to see her sisters sold and is terrified the same will happen to her children if she were to have any.
The first part of Harriet takes us with her as she makes her own risky journey to the free North. As a solo female runaway Harriet faced many challenges including animals and the constant pursuit of her Masters and the bounty hunters he hires. There is also a highly unlikely scene on a bridge that oddly worked for me as a cheesy moment of cinematic heroism.
The rest of the film follows Harriet as she risks going back to save over 70 slaves taking them as far as Canada once the Fugitive Slave Law comes into place. There are definitely cheesy moments where she’s more of an outlaw in a Western than I’m sure she was in real life but I didn’t mind the cheese.
Janelle Monáe appears as a free woman Maria Buchannon who helps Harriet in a boarding house that she runs. Leslie Odom Jr is William Still, who leads the abolitionists and runs the Underground Railroad and country singer Jennifer Nettles has a surprising turn as the Mother of Gideon (Joe Alwyn) who owns Harriet and her family.
If you are looking for 12 Years a Slave gritty realism you aren’t getting it here. This is a film meant to inspire us. It mostly talks of the R rated realities of things like beatings, rape, lynchings etc. Again, this is a film made to inspire young people with the heroism of Harriet Tubman’s story and get them excited about history. That’s a good thing. It’s good we have the gritty realism, but we also need this type of heroic storytelling as well.
Cynthia Erivo is strong as Harriet and her singing chops are put to use in a bit of a corny but effective plot device. The faith-based elements might not be for everyone, but they worked for me. I also thought the production design, costumes and camerawork were all very well done.
A few scenes felt a little repetitive and the 125 minute runtime could have definitely been cut down, but I liked Harriet. It’s a sentimental tribute to a powerful woman. It will help inspire school-children and families to be as brave as Harriet and to learn a little bit more about the history which surrounded her.
6.5 out of 10