Home » Years » 2019 » Harriet •••••

Harriet •••••

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Action/Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2019



Scott, let’s review the new Julia Roberts movie: Harriet

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I’m sure you’ll explain yourself shortly. This film is, ahem, a tad more meaningful than most Julia Roberts movies. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Minty (later named Harriet Tubman, Cynthia Erivo) who is engaged to a freed slave but cannot marry because she is owned by Gideon Burgess’s (Joe Alwyn). She and her family appeal to the Burgesses for her release as his grandfather promised to free his slaves upon his death. But they are denied. Now, Minty has decided to escape her servitude and walk all the way to the North and freedom.

It’s a march of 100 miles from Maryland to Philadelphia, and it is fraught with danger. When she arrives, starving and exhausted, she is met by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) who gives her a place to stay and a paying job as a newly freed citizen. She adopts the freed name of Harriet Tubman. Tubman decides that she has to go back to Maryland to free her husband. Ignoring warnings about the perils of such a trip, Tubman embarks on the journey and ends up bringing back a half-dozen family members. Back in Philadelphia, she is made a member of the Underground Railroad.

So, pardon my introductory quip as it has a purpose. This screenplay was presented to a major Hollywood producer 20 years ago. That producer suggested he might get behind the film if Julia Roberts were the lead. While times have changed, they haven’t changed much. Issues surrounding black face, yellow face, and other casting issues are still being resolved. But finally we have more films being made with minorities in leading roles. And Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman delivers in a major way.

As we often remind readers, this is less a documentary and more a biopic with a Hollywood turn. Still, this is a great story about persistence and it illuminates the life of a woman who was not just a hero for standing up to slavery, but for going back again and again to rescue her friends and family. She freed more slaves personally than any other abolitionist. Then, she went on to lead the all-black troupe that fought in the civil war. Until recently, she was the only woman to lead a regiment into battle. And yet we never knew this.

Tubman was well-known for having led the Underground Railroad. This movie tells us things we weren’t told in school. Mainly, the personal risk that Tubman took on the make this possible. Also, the visions that she had as a result of head trauma at the hands of her masters. These visions were reported to give her future-sight that saved her life time and again.

The story is masterfully told by screenwriters Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons. The direction and cinematography are also compelling. From a structural point of view, the story hits all the classic Hollywood turning points. It was both informative, and entertaining — which is difficult in a biopic. Another selling point is the telling of the story over time. Biopics often find it difficult to cram an entire lifetime into a 2-hour film. So, Harriet focuses on two events: her escape, and her return to save family. Her eventual rise to “General Tubman” was presented as an epilogue with captions. If the goal was to remind and educate us of the contributions Tubman made to American history, then Harriet is a wild success.

Greg, I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. This is one of those “must-see” movies, not because it is well-crafted but because it tells a history of America that is still overlooked and still has modern-day reverberations. America’s racist past remains a big part of present day USA, with the recently announced 10-year delay in putting Harriet Tubman’s image on the 20-dollar bill serving as a striking example of American resistance to giving people of color their due. For those interested, we may finally see Tubman on the $20 note in the year 2028. That we must wait that long is a shameful indictment of our racist society.

Oscar season is upon us and Harriet will be a serious contender for Best Picture, and deservingly so. It’s pretty hard to surpass the heroism of the legendary Harriet Tubman. She had every one of the qualities of the Great Eight Traits of Heroes – she was smart, strong, resilient, reliable, charismatic, caring, selfless, and inspirational. And a mere listing of these traits doesn’t do justice to the adversity that Tubman had to overcome in making a hugely important, positive, and enduring contribution to American society.

Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Tubman is extraordinary and is also worthy of recognition at Academy Award time. It’s a quiet performance but one that is overflowing with steely resolve. This is a woman who will not tolerate slavery and will do anything and make any sacrifice necessary to save people from the bonds of illegal servitude. Tubman makes it clear, at several key moments in the film, that she is either going to be set free or die. She then imparts this value onto others who are ripe for such inspiration — in this way Tubman is much more than a hero. She is also a mentor and change agent, facilitating and catalyzing change at the level of individuals, community, state, and nation.

Harriet is a film that is long overdue. It’s rare in that it presents unknown history in an entertaining way. I give it 5 out of 5 Reels. Harriet Tubman is a hero not only to African Americans for having freed so many slaves and led African Americans into battle, but to all Americans for her courage, bravery, and skill in battle. I give her 5 out of 5 Heroes. And her message that one has to persevere to interfere can never be forgotten. I give Harriet 5 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

Harriet is one of the best films of 2019 and deserves Oscar consideration for Best Picture and Best Actress. I’d venture to guess that most White Americans are largely ignorant of Tubman’s heroic life, and let’s hope that this movie makes some inroads in correcting that ignorance. This is a story of supreme courage, grit, and resolve – attributes of our most impactful heroes and social change agents. I’m honored to award Harriet with 5 full Reels out of 5. 

There is no surpassing the supreme heroism of Harriet Tubman. We should emphasize that Tubman is one of those rare heroes who not only display physical heroism (e.g., courage, strength, and stamina) but also moral heroism (principles, selflessness, and integrity). This is the complete heroic package on display. I agree with you, Greg, that Tubman deserves all 5 Hero points out of 5 and all 5 Message points out of 5, too.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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