True story movies can be tricky sometimes, because although most of them are pretty entertaining, it can be hard to tell where the “true story” ends and the Hollywood rewrites begin. It’s for this reason that I was slightly skeptical about seeing Harriet, a biopic about renowned slave-rescuer Harriet Tubman. And although my skepticism has been justified by previous examples of loose representations, I feel confident declaring that Harriet is not one of them.
The story follows Tubman (played by Widows’ Cynthia Eviro) from her early days as a runaway slave (then known as Araminta “Minty” Ross) making the perilous solo journey to freedom in Philadelphia. There, the newly-liberated Minty gives herself a new name, and, as Harriet Tubman, embarks on multiple high-risk rescue missions to liberate other slaves.
Eviro was quite good in last year’s Widows, but her role in that film was more of a supporting character, so it’s nice to see her front and center as a leading lady. Eviro exudes a kind of powerful confidence that this character can’t be played without, but she’s not depicted as being so high-and-mighty that she’s not believable. I was worried that the script would paint Tubman as the dauntless superhero that I learned about in school, but screenwriters Kasi Lemmons (who also directed the picture) and Gregory Allen Howard wisely brought Harriet down from her historical pedestal to the level of human relatability. At the height of her abolitionist days, Tubman carries a truly powerful presence, but she has to go on a personal journey of growth and confidence to get to that point, which I really appreciated seeing. I also thought that the writers made a great choice in emphasizing Tubman’s unwavering faith in God, which is something that I gratefully learned from this film.
While Eviro undoubtedly dominates the scene, the other cast members are worth mentioning as well, including Janelle Monáe (of Hidden Figures), Leslie Odom, Jr., Clarke Peters (The Wire), and Joe Alwyn (The Favourite).
But for residents of Virginia, perhaps the coolest aspect of the film is that it was shot here at home. Cities such as Richmond, Petersburg, Charles City, and other locations served to provide a setting for a challenging shoot. During my time at the film festival, I attended a conversation with Lemmons (thankfully a spoiler-free conversation, as I hadn’t seen the film yet) wherein she described some of the bitter filming conditions. The following day at a Q&A after having seen the film, producer Debra Martin Chase quoted a crew member by saying, “this is hard, but it’s not Harriet Tubman hard.”
Another piece of behind-the-scenes quality that visually ties the whole presentation together is the costume design by Paul Tazewell. Everything worn by the cast is gorgeous and accurate to the period, and I would be quite surprised if Tazewell’s work on the film wasn’t nominated for an Oscar in January.
Finally, I must give mention to the music, composed by Terence Blanchard. Blanchard is a frequent collaborator with Spike Lee, providing the music to hits such as Malcolm X, Inside Man, 25th Hour, and most recently, BlacKKKlansman. His score for this film is subtle and moving, and it might just be because I was fortunate enough to hear it performed live just before seeing the film, but I thought that the music pieces matched their scenes fluidly.
Above all else, Harriet is a film whose intent is to empower and inspire, and I could easily feel that response resonate throughout the auditorium I was in. Not since Avengers: Endgame have I experienced a film with an audience that garnered so many frequent and justified moments of applause. While I have heard complaints that the film overlooks other fascinating aspects of Harriet’s life post-Civil War (such as engaging in Womens’ Rights activism and building a home for elderly people of color), that’s not really what this film is about. This is a story devoted to a specific section of Harriet’s life (that being her abolitionism), and it explores that area in every facet and detail. I enjoyed Harriet more than I honestly thought I would, and I’m giving Harriet three and a half out of four stars.