For an American hero as iconic as Harriet Tubman, it’s surprising that only now has a film been made attempting to capture her life and actions. With Kasi Lemmons (“Talk to Me,” “Black Nativity”) in the director’s chair and a script from herself and Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans,” “Ali”), “Harriet” manages to be an undoubtably entertaining and thrilling character portrait of a truly astonishing individual.
Without a doubt, the film’s success rides on Cynthia Erivo’s (“Bad Times at the El Royale,” “Widows”) performance as Tubman herself. And she delivers in just about every conceivable way. There’s a clear evolution to her character as the film progresses, preventing it from feeling like she instantly becomes the brave heroine she’s known as.
Multiple sequences in the film show her struggles and the way she uses her intelligence and intuition to get herself out of some truly terrifying scenarios. The moments of weakness are there to help show her evolution, but there are just as many that showcase her pure tenacity and hard leadership and they are simply thrilling to watch. Erivo is completely captivating and yet again shows that she’s one of the brightest up and comers working in Hollywood today.
The rest of the cast is excellent, mostly supporting roles as no one has as much story or screen time spent on them as Harriet. Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton,” “Red Tails”) plays William Still with a dignified grace, a clear businessman helping Harriet and keeping records. There’s a warmth and friendliness to his performance, while clearly never forgetting the difficulty of the job that they must do.
Janelle Monáe’s (“Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight”) role isn’t as large as one might’ve hoped, but she still delivers a wonderful performance with the time she’s given. Joe Alwyn (“The Favourite,” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”) is terrifying and despicable, as he should be, in the role of Gideon Brodess. Also worth noting is Clarke Peters (“The Wire,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as Harriet’s father, a genuinely kind man who instills a sense of spirit and hope in her and the film.
Omar Dorsey (“Queen Sugar,” “Halloween (2018)”) as the bounty hunter Bigger Long isn’t on screen often, but like Monáe, his role is still memorable and exquisitely acted, just as despicable as Brodess. Henry Hunter Hall (“Black Nativity,” “Waist Deep”) is also charming and great as Walter, the scrappy slave tracker informant for Harriet.
Since so much of the film takes place on the Underground Railroad, there aren’t many beautiful period buildings or large cities to focus on. When they are present, the production design is gorgeous and detailed. The costumes are also great, showing great detail in their deterioration as Harriet makes her way to freedom.
This abundance of exterior nature shots and scenes at night means that the cinematography must be excellent, and thankfully it is. John Toll (“The Thin Red Line,” “The Last Samurai”) shoots with grace and fluidity, taking great care to frame forests and vistas with clarity and openness. Some shots are absolute tear jerkers as well, such as one towards the end of the film involving a large group of slaves running to freedom.
That scene, and many others, are powerful not only because of how they’re shot, but because of the score from Terence Blanchard (“Malcolm X,” “BlacKkKlansman”), who infuses a slight electronic background with trumpets and strings that evokes menace and hope in equal measures.
While a large majority of the film is excellent, it is worth noting that it is a character study, and one that focuses clearly on its lead. Because of that, there are side characters who are introduced who never get proper sendoffs, and plot elements that aren’t brought to full conclusions. It doesn’t dampen Harriet’s story or the overall film as a whole, but it does mean that some of its overarching plot elements are left feeling a bit unfinished.
Some of those issues can be overlooked almost entirely because, like previously stated, this is character study that lives and dies on its lead. Cynthia Erivo’s incredible lead performance drives the film, and its top-notch production design and ensemble cast help elevate “Harriet” to potential awards contender status. Ervio will surely send all the other Best Actress contenders running. 4.5/5