Review by Dan Skip Allen
Historical biopics can be hit and miss. Free State of Jones and Birth of a Nation are both lackluster and 12 Years a Slave is great. Harriet, on the other hand, is right smack in the middle. It’s not bad, but it isn’t great either. Harriet Tubman is portrayed by Cynthia Erivo who broke out last year with turns in two critically acclaimed films, Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale.
Tubman is a slave for the Brodess family in Maryland in the year 1850. She seeks to leave and raise a family with her husband John (Zachary Mamoh). When she is denied her leave, she asks God to strike down her master. Her wish is granted, but this leads to Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) — the son of the master — to sell her to the highest bidder, allowing her to break her away from her family. When news gets around that she's for sale, she decides she would rather "live free or die,” so she makes a run for it and heads for free Pennsylvania.
Director Kasi Lemmons has rounded up a great cast for Harriet. Along with Cynthia Erivo as Tubman, she cast fellow Tony Award winner Laslie Odom Jr. as William Sill, a great friend to Tubman. Odom Jr. had a realness about him. He had to look the part of successful businessman so he could hide his real intentions from his clients. Janelle Monae portrays Marie Buchanan, another friend and confidant to Tubman. Erivo is a seasoned pro on the stage, but Harriet shows that she is just as comfortable behind the camera. She owns this role as Tubman. The emotion exudes out of her. She was the right choice to lead this film by all means.
Lemmons is prominently known as an actress, her most popular roles being in 1991's Silence of the Lambs and 1992's Candyman. In 1997, she got the directing bug and subsequently directed Eve's Bayou starring Samuel L. Jackson. This is the first movie that she has directed since 2013's Black Nativity. Her films bring light to African-American actors and stories to which they can relate, Harriet included. This story also has a great message she needed to get out — a message of perseverance and courage.
As far as biopics go, Harriet is a good one, just not a great one. With serviceable performances from Cynthia Erivo and others, this story mostly known from history books doesn't have a lot of twists and turns, though it does have a lot of heart. If people are looking for something different in theaters, look no further than Harriet. This is a change of pace from the sequels, reboots, and re-imaginings out in theaters now. However, with all of the good choices out in theaters right now, the fickle moviegoing audience may cause this to get buried in the shuffle.
Harriet is now playing in theaters.