Cynthia Erivo’s ‘Harriet’ offers a meaningful history lesson
History books brim with stories about people who dare to reach beyond themselves to do what’s right for others. We live as we live today because so many before us selflessly dedicated their services to benefit many. And, when these lives come to the big screen, these heroes deserve respectful attention.
The new film “Harriet” paints a picture of Harriet Tubman that may or may not follow what we learned in school. Yes, the film traces her efforts to shuttle people held in slavery in the mid-1800s to safer locations in the North. And, yes, the film salutes her lifelong commitment to ensure that others could live free lives. But, unlike the ways history books tend to list achievements, “Harriet” dares to paint a more complete portrait of a woman who struggled throughout her life with disappointment and hurt to courageously imagine what life could be for other people.
To be fair, “Harriet” can, at times, feel familiar. Even predictable. The film begins with a standard opening sequence — depicting a life of slavery on a plantation before the Civil War — similar to scenes from “Gone with the Wind” in the late 1930s and “Twelve Years a Slave” a few years ago. While we immediately feel a connection to a young woman named “Minty,” we only get to know her when she dares to take her own steps to freedom by walking more than 100 miles from her plantation in Maryland to Philadelphia. But this is not where this lady’s story ends. “Minty” — who soon changes her name to “Harriet” — commits herself to lead as many slaves as possible to freedom. The film then follows this remarkable woman through years of unselfish efforts to make a difference to others who want to live in freedom.
What makes “Harriet” interesting to watch, however, is less what the character experiences on the road than what Harriet feels in her heart. And the sadness she must overcome to continue doing what others need. Cynthia Erivo soars in her interpretation of this major figure in history because she makes the heroine a woman. By creating her portrayal of Tubman from the inside, as someone confronting the depths of emotional pain, Erivo soars in the range and discipline of her performance. This marvelous British actress, who won a well-deserved Tony for playing an oppressed woman in the revival of the musical “The Color Purple,” shines in a portrayal filled with nuance and power, a creation less attached to the history books as to a woman’s soul. Erivo makes us believe, with each glance, every expression, how someone can reach beyond themselves to bring life to others. And she even gets a few chances to share that marvelous singing voice.
Other than Erivo, however, the film treats its supporting characters as one-dimensional window dressing. Ultimately, we savor “Harriet” the film because we cherish Harriet the performance. In Erivo, the movies have a new superstar who has what it takes to build a lasting career on screen. She makes us care, for her, for the movie, and for the real life of Harriet Tubman.
“Harriet” is Rated PG-13. The film runs 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Film Nutritional Value: Harriet
Content: High. “Harriet” reminds us what we can achieve when we listen to history and to each other.
Entertainment: High. While filling the film with detail, director Kasi Lemmons keeps the narrative clean and the visuals compelling to sustain the tension.
Message: High. The film challenges us to look at our nation, and ourselves, as we honor those who endured degrees of suffering that we find challenging to imagine today.
Relevance: High. With what happens every day in our world, any chance to learn more about our historical roots is essential.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this important film, talk with your children about the moments in United States history we must always remember.