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HBOWatch Movie Review: ‘Harriet’

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This movie is the incredible story of Harriet Tubman. For those of you who do not know her, she was the woman who braved cold, heat, hunger, hunting dogs, slaver owners, fear, and uncertainty to travel north to freedom.

Her name was Minty Ross. She was born a slave and worked many long hours in the field. Slavery is an abomination and a horror. For the African American men, women and children who were slaves, death was a preferment. The abuse, the psychological scars and the constant threat of assault lingered every day if you were a slave. Minty and her husband had tried to procure her freedom, so if they had a family of their own, their children would not be born into slavery. They lived and worked on a plantation in Maryland. Minty’s father was a slave who had been freed and continued to work nearby his daughter and family. 


The idea of being a free person was fleeting – and the punishment for any slave who dared run away was severe whippings or death. The uncertainty of being sold to another plantation or farm far away devastated families and was a regular occurrence. How can anyone say that they own another human being, based on the pigment of their skin? This movie brought out the frustration and the fear inside me – watching this in the present day made me shake my head. How many other slaves tried to escape? How many stories have we never heard? I hope and pray that there were others like Harriet who were able to escape a life of hardship and misery.

The movie Harriet is a 2019 biographical film of this amazing woman directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity), who wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember The Titans). It stars Cynthia Erivo (HBO’s THE OUTSIDER) as Tubman, with Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe in supporting roles.  It had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2019, and was theatrically released in the United States on November 1, 2019, by Focus Features. It received generally favorable reviews from critics, who praised Erivo’s performance and found the film sincere but formulaic. For her performance in the film, Erivo received nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild. I could see where critics could call it formulaic as far as a routinely structured as a period piece about slavery would be but, the presence of the Harriet persona and the strong performances Erivo outshines that for me.

If you are not familiar with the story read on: Harriet finds out that she is to be sold and decides to run for it. This is a plan so dangerous and fraught with peril but what other choice did she have? To stay on the plantation in Maryland and be under the eye of the owner’s son, who had less than honorable intentions towards her? A female slave was the property of the owner but also, the fear of sexual assault was an additional horror that many African American women were forced to endure. Harriet wanted more out of her life and you must admire the sheer will of her determination to get the hell out. There were no maps she could use, slaves were not allowed to be taught to read or learn in school, they were not allowed their own means of transportation (horses). 

Movies_HarrietPic-300x292So, when Harriet flees, it is only a matter of time before the plantation’s son is after her with a posse and dogs. She flings herself over a bridge – and while it looks like she died in the gushing water below, she survived. The movie does an incredible job of portraying Harriet’s uncertainty, fear of the unknown and tenacity. She leaves her husband John behind and goes north. Along the way, she had some help and was able to make it north to freedom. Once she befriends a few free African Americans (William Steel and Marie Buchanan), it is simply not good enough that she is safe. She knows she must go back and make the perilous journey to get others out – her family members, her friends, other slaves that she knew. Along the way, there are bounty hunters, the plantation son who stubbornly hunts her every move and frightened slaves who go with Harriet to freedom. To imagine making the long and treacherous journey of going back into slave states to save your family and friends, knowing that if the bounty hunters or your former slave owners find you, it could mean beatings within an inch of your life, or being sold to another plantation in another state far away – what Harriet did was truly incredible. This lone woman was able to retrace her steps back and lead as many of her people as she could to freedom in the north without maps, without monuments, without any kind of markers to help make the journey easier was remarkable. 

Of course, Harriet experiences heartache when she tries to rescue her former husband. He assumed she had died in the water and remarried. It hurt like hell, but she kept going. Marie is killed by bounty hunters and it breaks Harriet’s heart. Yet, she still carried on her important work of freeing slaves. Imagine the pain, Movies_HarrietPic2-300x162suffering and trauma a person must go through while escaping slavery, having friends being killed, all the while being scared and not knowing if you would be successful. Harriet put her faith in God – and she experienced visions – which may be attributed to an injury she sustained as a young girl. Maybe you believe in miracles, maybe it was fate that Harriet escaped. Maybe she had clairvoyant tendencies – but she proved time and again to be important to the abolitionist movement. Harriet becomes a part of the intricate system of people who formed the Underground Railroad.

I sure hope this movie is historically accurate because the triumph of Harriet Tubman’s deeds needs to be told right and well. Experience Harriet, when it debuts on HBO on SATURDAY, July 18 @ 8:00pm. Witness not just a brave colored woman, but a brave American defy the odds and make a difference. Enjoy Harriet!  

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1 comment

Julie Thomas August 10, 2020 - 8:48 pm

I just saw “Harriet” on HBO, and noticed an egregious error in the credits: first billing is given to the actor Joe Alwyn. That’s crazy! First billing clearly belongs to the actor playing the main character, Harriet Tubman, Cynthia Erivo. Giving first billing to a secondary character, a white male, when the movie is about the black woman who risked her life many times to free slaves through the underground railroad is a bizarre error to make, and certainly seems more than a tad racist and sexist. I hope someone at HBO sees this comment and gets the credits corrected.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Julie Thomas


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