review by Bobby Blakey
I love historical films when they handle the subject matter properly. These stories offer up some of the most impactful and often times unbelievable films that need to be told. The latest, Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, and Clarke Peters from director Kasi Lemmons, but does it do this iconic figure justice or will it be one you want to escape from?
Harriet follows the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history. This is one of those stories that should have been told hundreds of times over and while I am sure there have been some, this is the first big screen adaptation that I know about. I went in fully expecting a pretty heavy film and while it has those moments and is in fact a good movie it felt way more formulaic than I had expected.
Make no mistake this movie does a good job at telling the story of Harriet Tubman and her rise from slave to hero of the people but there is so much to tell it sometimes feels more Hollywood than I had expected. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but watching a film like this I always have higher hopes for the impact it should invoke. I know that everyone will take it in differently and there are plenty of powerful moments, but as a whole it kind of got lost for me trying to figure out what it wants to be. There is the strong drama of truth here, but there is also a western action piece of sorts wrapped around it making it feel less important to me than it should be.
Despite some of it not bringing the punch I had hoped for it does have the performance it needs in Cynthia Erivo who is all in. She brings so much power to her performance bringing so many deep emotions and struggle to the role. You believe everything she says and would jump right up to stand
beside her in anything she said to do. This is the embodiment of what Tubman was in her success of freeing the slaves and becoming the hero she is. Every moment Erivo is on screen, which is obviously most of the time, she shines and makes this movie work the way it needs too.
The rest of the cast are great as well, but it is Erivo’s show all the way. I really enjoyed this movie and unexpectedly wasn’t bothered as much by the manufactured parts added to the history for the story movement and actually felt it helped it along. I was hoping for a deeper film packed with moments ripping at the heart strings and bringing the cheers when they rise up, but instead got a movie that felt more by the numbers with a powerful punch. I think part of the issue here is that there is likely no way to really fully capture and present everything that Tubman really did. This will no doubt affect everyone differently and is a film that should be seen as it is a great and important historical story with an amazing performance from Erivo.