The first thing you learn about our protagonist is that she has visions. The second thing you learn is that her name is Minty.
Or Araminta Ross, that is. This is what Harriet Tubman was named at birth, and it’s how we meet her in this biopic. The introduction of Director Kasi Lemmons’ film, “Harriet,” was a great reminder that though I (and I’m sure many people) know the basic story of Harriet Tubman, there is a lot that went unsaid in history class.
Lemmons has you covered. She knows the extent of most people’s knowledge concerning one of the great pioneers of the Underground Railroad. And, so, we learn a little about Minty (played by Cynthia Erivo). She’s married to a free man, but all of her family is enslaved on a plantation. While her father’s contract freed him at the age of 45, the plantation owners denied his family the same rights, keeping them as his own property. When Minty was younger, that same plantation owner struck her and cracked her head open. Since then, Harriet has had episodes, which she believes are visions—God speaks to her.
These visions are what allow this film to breathe. Most of the time, people brush these visions to the side in lieu of other important details, but “Harriet” weaves in what most would consider a physical ailment and uses it as a guiding force that, once Minty escapes to Philadelphia and begins calling herself Harriet, supports her work in the Underground Railroad. The visions are the reasoning behind her success, and they bring a sense of hope as Harriet continues to push forward, unable to stand by while there are still people in need.
We see a fantastic performance from Erivo, probably the film’s greatest strength, and much praise can be given to the supporting roles by Leslie Odom, Jr. as abolitionist William Still and Janelle Monae as Marie Buchanon, a proprietor in Philadelphia who befriends Harriet. All in all, the cast is strong, and the message that the film relays is powerful.
“Harriet” is by no means a perfect film. It plays it safe in many ways, remaining formulaic in structure and character development. Though we learn so much about Harriet Tubman, it is centered around her mission—a fair focus, to be sure, though sometimes it feels like the more personal moments are snipped out of the story (for example, she finds out her husband has moved on in her absence, and instead of getting a glimpse of her struggle and angst for the situation, we see a Hallmark picture of her talking to God). The visions that she has—and the fact that we are able to experience them with her—are what offer a flair of personality to the film, though even that stylistic decision could have been better utilized to make the story pop more.
There is something spectacular to be said about the objective of the film, however. Most stories of the Underground Railroad and slavery tip the scales in favor of brutal realism—the vivid pain of slavery, the desperate victory of escape—which “Harriet” does, to some extent. However, one would hardly compare the violence to some of the film’s predecessors on the subject. Though it contains these similarities, “Harriet” is not about the horrors of slavery, nor is it about the blessings of freedom. It explores the journey between the two. Lemmons tunes us into the true beauty of Harriet Tubman’s story—that she took her hardships and used them as a stepping stool to freedom.
The story of Harriet Tubman is already a powerful story in history books. But now, we get to feel that power, as Harriet comes to life on screen.
“Harriet” starts on Nov. 1 at Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.midtowncinema.com.
National Theatre Live
Sunday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m.
“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”
Sunday, Nov. 10, 2 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 25, 7 p.m.
Down in Front! Presents
“The Slime People”
Friday, Nov. 8, 9:30 p.m.
3rd in the Burg $3 Movie
Friday, Nov. 15, 9:30 p.m.