The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history. -Synopsis
Be free or die. -A tagline for the film
This is the 1st feature film to be made about the life of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (birth name: Arabella Minto); you can watch it on HBO Max. Producer Debra Martin Chase chose Cynthia Erivo for the lead b/c of her impressive career so far: Tony, Grammy and Emmy for The Color Purple musical on Broadway. There was controversy in casting a British woman for such an iconic American role; director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons (a Black American woman/former actress) explained that the film represented African-Americans: writers, production designer, composer, and hair/makeup.
Harriet is shown more as a “superhero,” than a real woman; this was the choice of the filmmakers. This movie is sadly disappointing (given the V important subject), though Erivo does a fine job w/ what she as given. The dialogue doesn’t really pop and the delivery (at times) is heavy-handed. Yes, Harriet really did experience visions, as a result of a childhood head injury. Many historians claim that this is likely due to a head injury she received in her youth. It is nice to look at, though there was NOT a big budget. There is some tension/suspense in Tubman’s escape (from a plantation in Dorchester Co, MD) and various rescue missions. There is a narrow range of Tubman’s life shown and there are several jumps in years at a time. One astute viewer noted that “Tubman’s work on women’s suffrage was only a footnote and arguments around what actions the abolitionist movement should take were greatly reduced.” There is no mention of John Brown, BUT Fredrick Douglass has a brief cameo. For the sensitive viewers out there, this is a much less violent portrayal than seen in 12 Years a Slave.
Some actors are highlighted, though others (incl. veterans w/ gravitas) don’t get much screen time. I wanted to see more of Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway; they play the Ross’ (Harriet’s parents). A few of Harriet’s family members were free, BUT most others are enslaved. Harriet’s 1st husband, John (Zachary Momo), was a free Black man. Vondie Curtis-Hall (also Lemmons’ husband) does a good job as Rev. Green. Leslie Odom Jr. is bright/charming as William Still, though I doubt this role was a challenge for him. Marie Buchanon (played by singer/actress Janelle Monae) was created for the movie; she is a sympathetic friend to Harrier, but quite modern. I don’t know how plausible it’d have been for a young/Black/unmarried woman to own a boarding house in Philly.
Harriet: [to Gideon, at gunpoint] You’ll die right here. On a frozen, blood-soaked battlefield, the moans of a generation of young men in your ears, dying in agony around you, for a lost cause. For a vile and wicked idea! For the sin of slavery! Can you hear them? God don’t mean people to own people, Gideon! Our time is near!
Unfortunately, we also see the in-over-his-head “actor” Joe Alwyn (also a Brit); I don’t know how he keeps getting roles! He plays Gideon Brodess, the slaveowner who grew up w/ (and maybe has a sort of obsession) w/ Harriet. Is it just about money (slaves were property), or is there something else going on? Perhaps worst of all (noted by several critics/casual viewers), is the cartoonish (Black) slavecatcher w/ the unfortunate name of Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey)- yikes!
 I attend a HBCU and have read, and studied, Harriet Tubman’s life. I don’t even know where to begin. There is no account of her ever standing with Union soldiers and pointing a gun. There are so many errors and what I saw on the screen was complete fiction.
 The scripting is insultingly lowbrow, almost patronizing. The acting talent has a good record in other productions, but in this film is unrealized due to the other problems. There are quite a few ahistoric, frankly false, events in this film which are not needed and make the film more a less than credible hagiography, as opposed to the plenty sufficient bravery, courage and strength of Tubman herself.
The film is not a total loss, but Tubman deserves better, much better, as do contemporary audiences.
 This is a standard biopic of anti-slavery heroine Harriet Tubman. It’s a serious take. The tone is singular which leaves the movie rather flat. I’m not calling for some broad jokes to inject silly humor or grotesque violence to horrify. The constant uninspired narrative can take a toll on the tension. The movie could push the intensity of the escapes. There are emotional power points, but they always seem a little melodramatic.
 If you want to see a REAL MOVIE on Harriet Tubman, look at the Cicely Tyson version: A Woman Called Moses.
-Excerpts from IMDb reviews
One thought on ““Harriet” (2019) starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, & Janelle Monae”
Wow, I liked this film! (I look forward to seeing Joe Alwyn every single time after seeing him in “The Favourite,” although I didn’t think this was a well-written role as it attributes a personal level of malice to what was most likely a “business interest” pursued as actively by the Brodesses as most slave owners would have at the time. Most people don’t know how actively even people we admire today pursued their runaway slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — George Washington comes to mind. )
While I think it’s fair to say that the film makes her a superhero, it also has to be balanced by the fact that the role of superhero was one she played at the time for the slaves and African Americans who knew (of) her. The sources relating to the “real” Harriet Tubman are slim on the ground, and the myth was much more important even during her lifetime than the person herself. While I agree that she is unlikely to have carried a weapon during her participation in the Combahee River raid, there is a depiction of her with a gun as early as 1869, so it’s something that was clearly important for her contemporaries. I don’t think it’s quite as blatantly ahistorical as the critics you mention make it, when it’s seen as a picture of her mythic qualities.
I also really liked how they dealt with her “spells,” which she clearly thought were divine episodes and not the result of earlier injuries. People at the time knew about them and they played an important role in her decisionmaking.
re: Bigger — this almost has to be a reference to the main character of Native Son by Richard Wright. The point of the name there was to point out that small men give themselves big names (iirc).