Harriet review – thrilling drama about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Cynthia Erivo stars in Kasi Lemmons’s belated but remarkable slavery biopic

If a film about the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman is long overdue, Kasi Lemmons’s remarkable biopic makes the wait worthwhile. In 1849, Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) flees the Maryland farm where she spent her life enslaved. Thrillingly, her escape is the film’s first act – she journeys 100 miles on foot to the free state of Philadelphia and the Anti-Slavery Society, where she befriends black activists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) and takes the name Harriet Tubman. The remainder of the film sees her taking several perilous trips back to the south to free her family from slave catchers, both black and white.

Lemmons, who directed 1997’s underseen (and underrated) Eve’s Bayou, infuses Tubman’s story with an imaginative southern gothic flair. Wide vistas celebrate the south’s pastoral landscapes; golden sunsets, a blanket of stars and the river that flows north to Philadelphia are depicted as holy guidance. “The hole in my head just makes God’s voice more clear,” Tubman says of a head trauma suffered as a child. “Possible brain damage” writes Still, but Lemmons reimagines her religious devotion as its own gift and propulsive force, even utilising singer Erivo’s soulful rumble to communicate its power. Tubman sings slave songs to communicate with plantation workers, invoking the gospel tradition of call and response.

Though the film is about the atrocity of slavery, Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) focus on liberation and solidarity, rather than amplifying pain, trauma and humiliation. So often, historical films are stale and mired in misery, but Harriet has a rare buoyancy.

Watch a trailer for Harriet


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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