Harriet (Movie Review)

Harriet is a 2019 American biographical cum historical film drama directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. It stars Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles.

Harriet focuses mainly on Tubman’s escape from slavery and her work as a ‘conductor’ freeing about 70 slaves in 13 missions, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, back in the mid 19th century.

Lemmons does an excellent job, in concert with Erivo, in depicting Tubman’s tenacity and resolve in carrying our her dangerous missions, despite her petite frame (she was all of 5 feet tall) and disability (she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, due to a childhood head injury). An unlikely American hero but one which deserves all the accolades this movie affords her.

Considering the eventful life journey that Tubman lived, putting together an intriguing biopic is a bit of a no-brainer. The main issue is whether her struggles are adequately presented in a realistic manner and we believe that Lemmons and Erivo have managed to achieve that.

What is interesting is of course how Christianity was utilised to both inspire and subjugate African-Americans at the same time. This dichotomy is represented well in Tubman’s philosophical and physical conflict with her former owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). Whereas Tubman believes that she has been chosen by God to help free her fellow slaves, Brodess believes that her status as a slave has been ordained by God.

This use of religious principles to oppress and subjugate other human beings continues to be relevant in America and the themes addressed in Harriet demonstrate that even a hundred years after Tubman’s death, Americans are still grappling with this conflict. Essential viewing.

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