“Harriet” is a triumph of a biopic

Jen Joseph


 Sometimes when I’m about to watch a biopic, my opinion tends to lean towards the cynical. What ways is this movie going to sashay away from the more upsetting elements of the past this time, or else exploit those elements to the point where they feel almost fetishized? I’ll admit, going into 2019’s “Harriet,” I was not especially excited to see a movie about one of the most overlooked historical figures, for fear it would water down her power and perseverance.

Luckily, “Harriet” did not water the title character down so much as it let her rise, like Miriam’s well. The film surprised me with its touching yet gripping take on Harriet Tubman. Without a doubt, the actor playing Harriet – Cynthia Erivo, known primarily for her Broadway performance as Celie in “The Color Purple” – owned this movie. This also explains why she sings so well- there are multiple diegetic scenes of Erivo singing spirituals in order to convey a message to the slaves covertly without the plantation owners knowing.

Harriet herself goes through every emotion in the book as she is forced to run, swim, trek for miles, and even learn to shoot in order to gain freedom. But she isn’t stoic or cold- Tubman is allowed to feel the pain and heartbreak of all the difficult choices she makes, and allows that pain to become the bravery she needs to carry her people further into the promised land (aka good ol’ Philly). 

In many ways, this film is a religious experience; we see Tubman receive premonitions that she explains to William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, aka Aaron Burr from the musical Hamilton) are from the Lord himself. Still, in perhaps the only joke in the movie, he writes “possible brain damage” in his notepad in response. However, her premonitions are proved right time and time again, allowing us to see that God really is on the side of our protagonist. The spirituals sung by the slaves relate directly to the events of the Bible, and Tubman with the runaways crosses the river in much the same way the biblical Moses does. 

I shouldn’t have to say this, but in case any Joss Whedon fans are reading, this is not by any definition a comedic or quippy take on Tubman’s story. Director Kasi Lemmons treats the script with dignity, grace, and compassion. This is not a story that should be told lightly, and I never once got the sense that the film was holding anything back. 

Overall, I was genuinely impressed by the honest and powerful take on injustice. This movie never both-sides itself- the farm owners are self-righteous monsters, and they deserve everything they get. I hope more people go see this one, because I think a movie like “Harriet” is really needed at a time where history is told by those who would like certain things forgotten. But forgetting injustices too often leads to those same injustices happening time and again. This movie does not let you forget- and that’s exactly what it ought to do.