Writer & Director Kasi Lemmons brings us Hollywood’s first big screen depiction of American abolitionist & Civil War hero Harriet Tubman in “Harriet”. In an Oscar worthy lead performance from the brilliant Cynthia Erivo. “Harriet” is a fast-paced, quick-cut style biopic, filmed as if it were a thriller or action movie. While there is too much of Tubman’s life to fit into a two-hour running time. Lemmons uses a basic formulaic biopic structure which is “Harriet’s” biggest un-originality, however it’s still a rich widescreen portrait of the freedom fighter who was both a rebellious slave and action heroine.
We all have learned one time or another about the great American abolitionist and Civil War hero Harriet Tubman in middle school. With Hollywood’s love of historical biopics, Hollywood has made films on just about anyone. After screening the new film, “Harriet” I went back and tried to find if a previous film about Harriet Tubman, was released prior to 2019’s film.
Shockingly and unbelievably enough we have never had a film until now about Harriet. She had become such a legendary figure through the decades, that people actually weren’t sure if she was a real person, or if she was a figure of folklore.
Now thanks to director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons, whose name had become known for her film, “Eve’s Bayou” which had received the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 1997. Kasi Lemmons biopic “Harriet” is simply breathtaking and inspiring.
Director Kasi Lemmons frames and directs “Harriet” much like the recent Edison and Westinghouse period piece drama “The Current War”. As she films “Harriet” and it’s harrowing rescue missions in a fast-paced, quick-cut style, as if it were a thriller or action movie.
Playing the real-life historical action hero, is a powerful Oscar worthy lead performance from the brilliant Cynthia Erivo (“Bad Times At The El Royale”). Harriet is the original definition of a badass woman. She was a Maryland slave who persevered against all odds of bigotry and hatred, she incredibly escaped to Philadelphia as she went back in disguise 13 times and led at least 70 people (including her family) to freedom, before leading Union soldiers in battle.
Harriet was brain injured by an overseer when she was in her teens, she often passes out and sees visions she thought God was sending. They called her “Moses” on the wanted posters and even some blacks were out to catch her, for the reward which would come to $1.1 million in today’s dollars.
Moviegoers finally have the opportunity to see this story come to life in a two hour and ten minute slice of historical fiction, concentrating primarily on Tubman’s emergence from abused slave girl to brave, gun toting and relentlessly determined conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Erivo, is a 32-year old British native of Nigerian descent, who won the Tony Award in 2016 for her show-stopping portrayal of Celie in the lauded revival of “The Color Purple”. Her performance as Harriet Tubman, will take your breath away. Erivo is the crucial piece that holds everything together. She provides the kind of performance that Harriet Tubman deserves, Erivo reminds me a lot of Viola Davis in how her performance can express deep emotion in no words or only a few words. Her performance like the film is wonderfully powerful stuff.
The ensemble cast here is brilliant but Leslie Odom Jr. walks away with the finest work of the supporting cast. He turns in stellar work as William Still, a good man and a great man who at first is almost amused by Harriet’s blind determination but becomes her biggest supporter.
The villains of the film which are essentially Harriet’s slave owners, are villains with a capital V for vile. It’s some of the most vile depictions I’ve come to see in the movies. Playing Gideon Brodess is Joe Alwyn, Tubman’s former slave owner obsessed with catching her and he is as vile as they come.
Biopics that are stemmed from historical events or individuals often gain traction in the Oscar race when it’s hounded by claims of historical inaccuracies. Last year, films like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Green Book” all came under fire for presenting distorted or incomplete depictions. The same is happening this year, with “Harriet” which is running the gauntlet. Writer and director Kasi Lemmons isn’t having that with her film. Lemmons firmly believes that it’s impossible to operate as both a first rate screenwriter and a first rate historian.
She has stated in interviews “Of course I embellished, I’m a screenwriter. I added to the story because anybody that’s a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish a little”. Tubman had never learned to read or write, therefore details about her life come largely from first and second hand accounts. Lemmons’ primary sources were Tubman biographies, including “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman”, written in 1869 by Tubman’s abolitionist friend Sarah Bradford.
There are too many real incidents in Tubman’s life to fit coherently into a two-hour running time. Therefore Lemmons has decided on using a basic formulaic biopic structure which is “Harriet’s” biggest un-originalality. It becomes one of those films focusing on a pivotal period in a historical figure’s life and includes an epilogue with written explanations during the final reel detailing the end of the person’s life, that comes complete with old photographs on screen.
Lemmons choses to film around the scenes of torture, because as she explained when “Harriet” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She wanted it to be a film about freedom, not slavery.
The pleasure of these biopics are to discover unknown facts about these individuals as they are played out on screen. See as how this is Hollywood’s first film on Harriet, a lot of will surprise many. Kasi Lemmons creates a rich portrait of the freedom fighter as both a rebellious slave and action heroine.
GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3 & 1/2 out of 5)