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

Contributor

Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Letters from the Inside review – words to set you free
In the latest instalment of the Letters Live series, readers including Benedict Cumberbatch, Olivia Colman and Russell Brand shared moving missives

Miranda Sawyer

18, Dec, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Bachelors review – moving comedy drama about loss
Kurt Voelker’s father-son tale boasts strong performances from JK Simmons and Julie Delpy

Simran Hans

01, Apr, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Stones Have Laws review – an escape back to nature
This atmospheric documentary follows a remote South American community descended from runaway slaves

Wendy Ide

11, Aug, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Girl on the Train; A Date for Mad Mary and more – review
Emily Blunt’s performance far exceeds the bounds of a glossy thriller, while Seána Kerslake is a perfect match for an ex-con drama

Guy Lodge

05, Feb, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Captain Fantastic review – thrilling and poignant
Viggo Mortensen leads an outstanding cast as a grizzled rural eccentric who hits the road with his brood of home-schooled, off-grid children

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

11, Sep, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Jidenna: The Chief review – a versatile, genre-bending debut
(Wondaland/Epic)

Michael Cragg

19, Feb, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Janelle Monáe review – future soul revue from an android reborn
From water-pistols to vagina trousers, the fun never stops at the eclectic artist’s formidable live show

Kitty Empire

16, Sep, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
North Sea jazz festival review – all tastes catered for as old meets new
From Anita Baker to Abdullah Ibrahim, legends stole the show at the world’s largest indoor jazz festival

Ammar Kalia

24, Jul, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer review – from dystopian android to R&B party girl
A pitch for the pop mainstream sees the Prince collaborator ditch the tech for a sexy, personal angle

Kitty Empire

28, Apr, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Clarke Peters: ‘Many people aren’t aware of Lena Horne’s struggle’
The star of The Wire and Treme on his new musical about the American singer, actor and activist – and his ‘surf noir’ project with Hugh Laurie

Interview by Liz Hoggard

14, May, 2017 @6:00 AM