VOD film review: Harriet
James R | On 30, Mar 2020
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr
Watch Harriet online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Cynthia Erivo has been crying out for a lead role for years, after stealing the show in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. It’s only fitting, perhaps, that she should get that opportunity with a biopic of Harriet Tubman, a woman whose name is likely unknown by most cinema audiences.
We first meet her as Araminta – or “Minty” – a slave on a Maryland farm who is married to a freedman, John. Together, they go to slave owner Mr Brodess to demand her freedom – something that Brodess’ father agreed in his will to do for both “Minty” and her mother when the latter turned 45. When that claim is literally ripped apart, Harriet does the one thing she can: she runs away.
That quest, which takes her off a bridge, down the river, through the Underground Railroad and eventually to Philadelphia to become a free woman is the stuff that cinema is made of – a rousing, inspiring, gruelling and gripping journey. But this film’s strength is that it doesn’t stop there: that whole chapter is just the first part of her story, and we soon follow her back again into the South to free her family.
It’s an idea that even abolitionist William Still (the always-excellent Leslie Odom Jr) scoffs at, as he declares that it’s too dangerous for her to do without experience or preparation. But Harriet Tubman’s conviction is rooted in her religious faith and a conviction that God will provide a safe route. Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons’ screenplay treats that belief with a straight-faced sincerity, in the same way that it’s able to delve into the nuances of the characters around her – Joe Alwyn’s Gideon Brodess professes to like “Minty”, but only because he likes the idea of owning and controlling her, while Zackary Momoh’s John does what he thinks he right after Harriet goes missing. Erivo’s sharp protagonist sees through them both.
But the film also finds the room to explore the complex way in which perceptions are shaped by experience, with Janelle Monáe delivering a brilliant turn as Marie Buchanon, a boarding-house owner who was born into freedom rather than slavery. It’s these gently human beats that help to round out what could have been a conventional biopic. Throughout, Kasi Lemmons’ direction keeps the pace and tone positively forward-moving, using Harriet’s determination and drive to fuel an inspiring story that focuses on liberation more than trauma. All of this wouldn’t be possible, though, without Cynthia Erivo, whose magnetic central presence guarantees that she’ll be a household name soon. Here’s hoping this deserving movie manages the same thing for Harriet Tubman too.
Harriet is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.