Arts movie review

Moses is a woman

‘Harriet’ delivers thrills, chills, whistles and frills

9202 4130 d002 00002 rc1549571242   lior hirschfeld
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in 'Harriet.'
Courtesy of focus features

Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae
Rated PG-13, Playing Nov. 1

Araminta “Minty” Ross was born into slavery in Maryland around 1820, the fifth of her enslaved parents’ nine children. Her father was ultimately granted his freedom per arrangement by their first slave owner; however, even though a similar arrangement was made for Minty’s mother, their current owners denied the manumission. 

Minty was frequently ill following a head injury by an overseer, and when her condition worsened in 1849, her owners attempted to sell her. Unwilling to be sold like many of her own siblings, Minty ran away to the North. Minty changed her name to Harriet Tubman, and up until the Civil War, Harriet returned to the South to rescue 70 more slaves from bondage, earning herself the name “Moses.” 

Harriet follows the life of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), starting shortly before her escape and focusing on her several forays back to the South to save dozens more slaves. Even though we all know how the story ends — slavery is abolished and Harriet survives to the ripe old age of 70 — the film is so captivating that you’ll still find yourself on the edge of your seat. Director Kasi Lemmons finds a good balance between adrenaline-filled sequences and feel-good moments, all without sugarcoating the atrocities committed against slaves and free blacks. 

Erivo’s spectacular acting is both captivating and compelling. Erivo slips into Harriet’s skin and wears her convictions and passions on her sleeve. Her performance weaves strong religious notes throughout the story and truly fleshes out the likeness of one of America’s most prominent and influential heros.

Yet where Harriet leads in story it lacks in emotion. Most of its emotional scenes arise not necessarily out of the passions of the characters but more out of the visceral imagery Lemmons presents. Because this is a historical film — and a film that follows a well-known history — it pays to focus less on events and more on the people. When Harriet faces exceptionally difficult moments, like when she returns to Maryland for the first time after running away, her decisions seem less motivated by passion than by choosing to move the story forward. Had Lemmons spent more time developing Harriet’s emotional story arc, this film could have been a real Academy Award contender. 

Slavery is a heavy and very personal subject in American history. Where other films float on the surface of the topic, Harriet takes the audience into the deep end of slavery and the fight to prove that all people are created equal. Harriet Tubman was an incredibly courageous woman, and Lemmons’s film honors her strong will and unbreakable spirit.