From the very beginning of “Harriet,” there’s no doubt that Araminta Ross Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) is going to escape slavery and free herself. When William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) asks if she wants a new name to mark her freedom, we know what she’s going to say.
Chances are, even if you didn’t fall asleep in your high school American history class and know Tubman’s story, the compelling characters, sharp dialogue and energetic plot will keep you in suspense at every moment. This intense, action-packed biographical film certainly had me on the edge of my seat — and I’m an exhausted college student who was sitting in a cozy chair in a dark room for two hours.
Director Kasi Lemmons brings the audience a close-up of beautifully crafted cinematography that plops us right in the midst of the Underground Railroad with stakes so real I was holding my breath. The movie tells the story through two narratives: one emotionally driven, of a woman who is forced to leave her own family behind in slavery time and time again, and one through harrowing political events, like the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and ensuing panic. Detailed shots help tell the story, from mist in trees to ticking clocks to unapologetically realistic beatings, and place us in the intensity of the scene with the characters.
The cinematography isn’t the only gush-worthy aspect. From the moment Tubman first straps a weapon to her belt, Erivo’s nervous but determined depiction of a frightened girl on the run gradually transforms into a hardened and confident “Moses.” Erivo is joined by a diverse and talented cast, including Janelle Monáe and Joe Alwyn, who totally livens up the game by depicting the spoiled, monstrous slave owner, but with a twist this time: he has depth.
My only qualm with “Harriet” is the movie’s claim that Tubman accomplished a good portion of her badass-ery through the power of prayer. Tubman sports an almost supernatural ability to escape pissed off slave owners time and time again, which certainly was true, but is it really because she could see the future? The real Tubman’s courage and strength in the challenges she chose for herself are undeniably admirable and have inspired others to carry on her social works today. While a close relationship with God and the visions Tubman dealt with after a childhood injury played a significant role in her life, “Harriet” rides a fine line that nearly undermines Tubman’s accomplishments and attributes them to religion instead. On a slightly less significant note, one has to wonder how she makes it through the movie with directions based on street signs she can’t read.
Despite a few minor shortcomings, “Harriet” takes a well-known story and tells it in an engaging way with twists that can leave the audience holding its breath.