By Kate Boyle
Harriet Tubman was an amazing woman. She escaped slavery on her own, went back dozens of times to rescue others, lead a military operation south to reach even more people, and after the war fought for women’s rights. Her life has been begging for a biopic but until now she has only appeared in a cameo role in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”(2012), as the subject of an episode of “Drunk History” (2013-), and on various history shows for kids. “Harriet”(2019) does an excellent job finally brining an extraordinary woman to the big screen.
Harriet Tubman is portrayed by the amazing Cynthia Erivo. This is her first leading role; she’s previously had supporting roles in “Bad Times at the El Royale”(2018) and “Widows”(2018). Erivo has also had a successful career on Broadway, even winning the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in 2016. Fellow 2016 Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. appears in the film as abolitionist William Still. Janelle Monáe is also in the film as fictional, yet fabulous boarding house owner Marie Buchanon.
The film spans the time just before Harriet’s escape to freedom, covers her career as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, and through the end of the Civil War. It’s mostly historically accurate save for two prominent characters and some name changes. Harriet’s escape is embellished a little if you compare it to her own description of what happened, they also have her picking her new name of “Harriet Tubman” after she reaches freedom when in reality she changed it when she got married. (Her birth name was Araminta Ross) That’s just me nitpicking, neither of those historical inaccuracies “ruin the movie” I just knew those facts before I saw the movie so I thought I’d mention them.
“I almost have no almost no complaints about “Harriet”; the cast is great, the costumes and sets are wonderful, and I love that the story didn’t stray too far from the truth.”
The film includes many details of Harriet Tubman’s life that may not be well known and used documented quotes said by Tubman. Her reaction to stepping over the border to freedom is recreated beautifully and accurately according to Tubman’s account. They also included things like Harriet suffered from dizzy spells and visions after a traumatic head injury, she was devoutly religious and believed her visions were sent from god. On her rescue missions, she adjusted words in well know hymns to signal whether it was safe or not to run. I’m glad they included Harriet’s singing because it allows audiences to enjoy the lovely voice of Cynthia Erivo. She also co-wrote an original song for the film called “Stand Up”. If you haven’t heard it, please look it up immediately, I’ve been listening to it on repeat for a couple weeks. If it does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, I will be very upset. It’s the best song from a film released so far this year.
I almost have no almost no complaints about “Harriet”; the cast is great, the costumes and sets are wonderful, and I love that the story didn’t stray too far from the truth. My only problem with the film is with the character of Bigger Long. Long is an entirely fictional character, he’s not remotely based on anyone from Harriet Tubman’s history (as far as I can tell and I did a lot of research). His character is an infamous runaway slave catcher who works with plantation owners to find people who have escaped, he’s also a free black man. I don’t understand the choice to create this character when there are almost no examples from history to back it up.
This is a movie I’d expect people would want their kids to see, and for the most part I think it’s appropriate for older kids. It doesn’t detract from the horrors of slavery, but addresses them in a way that would be acceptable for a wider audience.
He also seemed like a stereotype, similar to characters in movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, it just sat wrong with me and I really didn’t like the character at all. There were plenty of other villains in the film, he was entirely unnecessary. I have no problem with fictional characters being added to films based on historical events. Janelle Monáe’s character was also entirely fictional, but in her case someone like Marie could have existed and was there to help Harriet adjust to her new lifestyle in Philadelphia.
Other criticisms I’ve seen but don’t necessarily agree with are about how slavery is portrayed in the film. It’s not as hard to watch or brutal as previous films on the subject, but I think that’s acceptable for a PG-13 film about Harriet Tubman. This is a movie I’d expect people would want their kids to see, and for the most part I think it’s appropriate for older kids. It doesn’t detract from the horrors of slavery, but addresses them in a way that would be acceptable for a wider audience.
Overall “Harriet” is a solid film, Cynthia Erivo’s performance elevates it from standard biopic to inspiring historical drama. Director/writer Kasi Lemmons should be commended for keeping the film historically accurate, intriguing, and keeping the focus on Harriet herself. I am interested to see how “Harriet” does this awards season. I am hoping to see a Best Actress and Best Original Song nomination for Cynthia Erivo at the Oscars.