Harriet explores the true story of Harriet Tubman, an Underground Railroad hero who dedicated her life to leading slaves to freedom. This film is a meaningful homage to people of colour in America fighting for freedom, the meaning of liberty and the incredible efforts of Harriet Tubman.
Cynthia Erivo shines, her portrayal of such an iconic figure does Harriet Tubman justice. She is raw and emotional; her eyes tell the tale as if the script was unneeded. Her facial expressions are honest, her gazes into the camera are chilling and mesmerizing. Erivo hit the nail on the head with her portrayal of Harriet. Aside from the acting, the cinematic mastery that unfolded during Harriet was breathtaking.
The movie was impressive in a variety of respects. The imagery, the connections made to religion, the depiction of femininity and the overall execution of the plot were all unique and interesting.
The water imagery pulled the entire film together and created a unifying feature that was easily recognizable and meaningful. The audience is first exposed to the use of water imagery quietly when Harriet’s praying spot, a small lake beside an old tree, appears in the depths of the opening scenes. Water imagery grows in prominence when Harriet jumps into rushing rapids after stating that she would rather die than be enslaved. The water is loud, murky and unpredictable, in direct contrast from the still, gentle water imagery that is evident earlier in the film.
The rolling tears that pour down more than one character’s face throughout the film unify the hurt felt by both free people of colour and those still in the bondage of slavery. The tears Harriet sheds at her father’s mill are contrasted with the powerful waterfall outside. This foreshadows the unforgiving role Harriet will soon take on. Water is used for imagery but also as a practical means of transportation, adding to the importance of water throughout the plot. Transitional scenes feature gorgeous close-ups of nature, from frost on leaves to grasshoppers and always include some kind of water to indicate the scenes are transitioning.
Religion is also woven throughout the film as a unifying theme. Harriet is a devoted follower of God and claims she can hear him directly due to a skull fracture she suffered as a teen. The use of prayer offers a look into the unwavering belief in God that carried Harriet through many of her ventures down south to rescue slaves. Churches are seen as safe havens in the film, offering refugees to those travelling the Underground Railroad. Religion guides Harriet in the film and guides the audience to consider the role of religion to slaves, slaveholders and free people of colour.
The most intriguing aspect of this film was the humanization of Harriet. Often historical figures are seen as one-dimensional black and white photographs, but with this film, Harriet Tubman is brought to life. Part of this humanization was the exploration of Harriet’s femininity. She is taught how to be a proper lady by Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe),. The scenes including both Marie and Harriet offer a beautiful and interesting contrast of black femininity. Harriet also has to tackle issues like marital strife, while dealing with much larger issues like saving slaves from the plantation she was previously owned by. Harriet in Harriet is taken off a pedestal in a way; she is not just an iconic conductor on the Underground Railroad, she is a sister, a daughter and a lover. The humanization of Harriet is invaluable to appreciate the importance of historical movies in mainstream theatre. This aspect of the film makes it a flick anyone can enjoy and understand, whatever their historical knowledge is.
For those who have previous historical knowledge about Harriet Tubman, there are many obscure facts sprinkled throughout the film about her family and about her contributions throughout the Civil War. Whether the viewer is a history buff or not, this film has something to offer for everyone.
The structure of the plot, which was executed by director Kasi Lemmons, is very sophisticated and underrated. There is not one big climax and clear resolution, but small triumphs throughout the film, highlighted by escalated music and Erivo delivering intense, moving lines. This made the film consistently exciting and leaves the viewer eager for more.
Lemmons is well versed in directing bold movies. Her directorial debut was Eve’s Bayou that made a splash in the 90s by focussing on racial relations in America. The merit of Lemmons backs up the importance of this film as it is invaluable to have people of colour directing, acting and enriching the movie industry. The “some-old-white-guy-portraying-his-version-of-racism” is tired out, offensive and has no place in 2019. Lemmons is a trailblazer for women of colour in the film industry and had been for decades, which made the expectations for this movie high. The connection between the content of the film and the director brings the testy, uncertain waters of racial relations to the forefront of the audience’s experience.
This film was an overall knock out, it was bold and daring in its careful depiction of pre-Civil War America. So often historical films are drowned out with gunfights, sell-out soundtracks and an exclusively white narrative, however, Harriet is meticulous in its detail and cinematic experience.