Movie Review: Harriet

The peerless Underground Railroad conductor gets the biopic she deserves.

By Max Weiss | October 31, 2019, 12:00 pm

-Focus Features

Movie Review: Harriet

The peerless Underground Railroad conductor gets the biopic she deserves.

By Max Weiss | October 31, 2019, 12:00 pm

-Focus Features

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the relative merits of the superhero movie. I can’t say it’s my favorite genre, but I’ll make an exception for real life superheroes like Harriet Tubman.

To be sure, Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of the legendary Underground Railroad conductor is strictly in a mythologizing mood. But so what? Few Americans deserve the kind of hagiography that Tubman receives here. In some ways, it would be impossible to overstate how brave, important, and singular a figure she was.

When we first meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) on a farm in Dorchester County, MD, you don’t see any of this coming. She’s a slave, who goes by the first name of Minty. Her husband (Zackary Momoh) and father (Clarke Peters) are both free men, but their freedom seems precarious. Her mother and siblings are still slaves (a lawyer’s letter demanding that they be released from their bondage, as per a previous arrangement, is unceremoniously ripped up).

Harriet prays for her master’s death—and it comes, the first indication that the film really does see her as a prophet of sorts, bestowed with extraordinary gifts. (The film takes the fact that Harriet can see the future and communicate with God as canon.) But this doesn’t free her. She still has the master’s self-pitying wife and mean-spirited son Gideon (British actor Joe Alwyn, distractingly handsome and dandyish in the role) to contend with. Gideon saw Harriet praying for his father’s death, so he decides to sell her. That’s when she knows she must escape to the north, where black men and women can live free.

This, of course, will prove to be the first of many trips Harriet makes to the north and back—and each plays out like an edge of your seat adventure film, with terrifyingly high stakes. In this first escape, Harriet is being pursued by men on horseback and bloodhounds. When they find her, she’s standing at the precipice of a rapid river. This is when she makes the now famous declaration, “I’m going to be free or die,” and off she jumps.

There are more perils along the way until she makes it to Philadelphia. In a remarkable scene, she finds herself in the center of this bustling city, stunned by the black men and women who are walking free. A friendly stranger tells her to stand tall. There’s nothing to hide from here.

In Philly, she’s introduced to William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who has dedicated his life to helping and documenting the stories of slaves. He’s incredulous when he discovers that Harriet has made this journey on her own. It won’t be the last time he underestimates her. William takes Harriet to the boarding house run by the beautiful, uncommonly dignified Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monaé), who immediately comes to admire and love her new charge.

We revisit Harriet a year later and see her as a new woman—no longer meek in any way, but indeed, standing tall and in her power. This is when she decides she must return to Maryland to free her husband and siblings. She gets so good at freeing slaves she becomes a folklore like figure, called Moses. And some slave owners, refusing to believe that they are being outwitted by a black man (they assume she’s a man, of course), speculate that she’s an abolitionist in black face.

I can’t overstate how great Erivo is in this role, as we watch Harriet evolve from a scared (if determined) slave to a free woman whose passionate faith in God and herself inspires a movement. Erivo doesn’t deify Tubman—she can be stubborn, dour, and even bullying—but she depicts her in all her fierceness, righteousness, and glory.

Yes, the film is a straightforward biopic that will certainly be shown in high school history classes for generations to come. I’m fine with that. This kind of American history deserves a film like this. And lest you think the film is exaggerating Harriet Tubman’s bravery and accomplishments, please remember that she was a conductor of the Underground Railroad, the first woman to lead an armed expedition into war, a Union spy, an abolitionist, and a leading supporter of women’s suffrage. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know who is.

Meet The Author

Max Weiss is the editor-in-chief of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.

You May Also Like

Arts District

The Big Baltimore Playlist: December 2019

The top five local songs you should download right now.

Arts & Culture

Music For The Future

A new Peabody major teaches students how to compose for an ever-changing media landscape.

Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: December 2019

The latest from Judith Krummeck, Donald Ray Schwartz, and Steven Evans

Arts & Culture

Her Spirit Made Concrete

Now celebrating 25 years in Baltimore, AVAM is a reflection of the woman who created it.


Movie Review: 1917

Old-fashioned war film is thrilling and beautiful, if a little corny.

The Chatter

Cardinal Shehan Choir Heads Back to ‘The View’ on MLK Day

This time, the group will be joined by Krieger Schechter and sing with Billy Porter.

Connect With Us

Most Read

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings Declares For Late Husband’s Seat: We break down the familiar faces in upcoming special Democratic primary.

Will Judge Make an Example Out of Catherine Pugh?: With the former mayor’s sentencing scheduled for February, both sides get to work on their case.

Maryland Native Maggie Rogers Receives First Grammy Nomination: The singer-songwriter was nominated for “Best New Artist” alongside big-name acts.

Maryland Politicians React to Trump Impeachment: Local leaders reflect and look ahead at Senate trial.

What to Know About the Maryland Cycling Classic Coming September 2020: For starters, Baltimore's pro cycling event will be more than 100 miles long.