Unlike Steven McQueen’s film Twelve Years A Slave and Toni Morrison’s literary novel Beloved, which cover the horrors of slavery, director Kasi Lemmons’ biographical drama Harriet showcases the powerful freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in a way that is accessible and emotionally invigorating. The film portrays Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo) escape from slavery and the dangerous missions she led to free hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Minimalist cinematography paired with an emotionally intriguing score, and grounded performances capture the power of this heroic figure.
Unlike what you’d expect from a film that covers slavery, Harriet doesn’t need to be an immersion horror like Twelve Years a Slave. Instead Lemmons emphasizes the family separation and moral dishonesty that comes with slavery. Before she took on her “freedom name” Harriet Tubman, she was Minty Ross – property owned by the Brodess family although her father Ben Ross and husband John Tubman were both free. After John’s failed attempt to graciously ask for Minty freedom’s (one she was supposed to have already been given), and a sudden death in the Brodess household, Minty is forced to make the quick decision to flee the Maryland farm. Lemmons’ sharp pacing reinvigorates the danger and suspense Harriet Tubman endured in this against-all-odds journey.
Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart) departs from his recent work in Iron Man 3 and Jupiter Ascending to create a more intimate environment, especially in close-ups that capture emotional performances. Still, Harriet showcases Toll’s ability to depict powerful figures. Add a stirring score by Terence Blanchard (25th Hour and BlacKKKlansman), which works in waves of rowdiness and stillness, and Harriet presents an experience true to the emotional strength required of its protagonist.
One exception to the film’s powerful consistency is the confusion behind Harriet’s visions. In the film, it is implied that Harriet suffered a head injury as a child, resulting in her now being able to hear God. Harriet uses these dream-like images as a guide through her Underground Railroad missions. In moments when she’s on the brink of being caught, this connection is what leads her and the slaves to safety. Although these religious visions sometimes feel like a cop-out, Erivo keeps her performance grounded in what makes this film unique: clear human emotions of grief, anger, and love.
Harriet was released in theaters on November 1st.
Julia Burgos, an English major pursuing the Film Studies Certificate, is hopeful she’ll complete her senior year with minimal deprivation.