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"HARRIET"
(2019) (Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr.) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A runaway slave escapes to the North and her freedom, only to return repeatedly to bring back family members, friends and strangers with her.
PLOT:
It's 1849 in Maryland and Araminta "Minty" Tubman (CYNTHIA ERIVO) is a slave who -- through a previous agreement -- believes she should be free, just like her husband, John (ZACKARY MOMOH), who's recently gained his freedom, with their desire being that their children will be born free.

But Minty's owner will have nothing of that, and upon his passing his widow, Eliza (JENNIFER NETTLES), and their adult son, Gideon (JOE ALWYN), likewise refuse to grant her freedom. Accordingly, when she learns she's to be sold like her sisters had been before her, Minty decides she must run away.

After saying goodbye to her remaining siblings and their parents, Rit (VANESSA BELL CALLOWAY) and Ben (CLARKE PETERS), Minty follows the instructions given to her by Rev. Green (VONDIE CURTIS-HALL) and starts off on her journey of more than one hundred miles to Pennsylvania.

Once there, she meets William Still (LESLIE ODOM JR.) who runs the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and is put up by boarding house owner Marie Buchanon (JANELLE MONAE) who gives runaway slaves a place to live.

Not surprisingly, Gideon isn't pleased with the development or news that Minty -- who's since renamed herself Harriet -- has now been sneaking back down south to rescue other slaves. Accordingly, he hires African-American trackers Bigger Long (OMAR J. DORSEY) and Walter (HENRY HUNTER HALL) to find and return her back to him so that he put her back into slavery.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There are more than seven billion people in the world right now, and I'd argue that all of them make a difference in one way or another. Albeit, for most that's just in their immediate community and circle of family, friends and neighbors, but that still means something.

Others manage to transcend their local trappings and do something that affects a far greater number of people. And in doing so, they often create a social, political or cultural shift in the world. Those that do so usually end up famous, not only just in their lifetime but often well beyond that.

One such person was Harriet Tubman, and what's arguably most impressive about her is that she created such change not just as a woman in the mid 19th century, but as a black person and an escaped slave to boot. From her time of working on the Underground Railroad to help free scores of slaves to being one of the few women -- ever -- to lead government forces into battle (in the Civil War) and then working as a suffragette, Tubman was a force to be reckoned with and certainly a woman ahead of her time.

It's somewhat surprising then, that she hasn't been portrayed more in the visual entertainment medium, especially as the main character. Sure, Cicely Tyson played her in the TV miniseries "A Woman Called Moses," but that was more than four decades ago.

Accordingly, it's fine time she got her own movie and that's just the case with the simply titled "Harriet" in which Cynthia Erivo portrays the now legendary figure who started her life as just one of umpteen souls born into American slavery.

Rather than start at that point and do the usual biopic thing of showing her growing up with various pivotal, life-shaping moments, writer/director Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard start telling her tale in the year 1849. That's when Harriet -- then nicknamed "Minty," her better-known name would come later -- decided to run away from her owner's farm rather than be sold off and thus likely separated from her husband, John (Zackary Momoh).

With the help of others, she makes the one-hundred-plus mile trip to her freedom in Philadelphia (thankfully the Elton John song doesn't play at that or any other point) where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) who runs the Anti-Slavery Society as well as Marie Buchanon (Janelle MonŠe). What astonishes Harriet about the latter is that not only does she run her own boarding house business, but also that she was born a free black woman.

With that being what she wanted for the kids that she and John have yet to have, she returns down South to help him escape. When that doesn't work as planned, she helps others and repeatedly returns to get more. That doesn't sit well with her owner, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who's hired two black trackers (played by Omar J. Dorsey and Henry Hunter Hall) to find and return her to him.

The film is solidly told, but beyond Erivo's performance, it never really soars and jumps off the screen as much as it should have. Some scenes featuring Harriet's visions (likely stemming from a brain injury she suffered as a young teen but which she attributed to God talking directly to her) are somewhat clunkily presented. They also add a supernatural clairvoyance sort of vibe that feels at odds with the rest of the film's straight drama historical tone.

Even so, if you aren't familiar with Tubman's tale of making a difference in the world, the film is worth seeing simply for those history-making moments as well as Erivo's terrific lead performance. "Harriet" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed October 14, 2019 / Posted November 1, 2019


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