Harriet movie is not just another biopic

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson /

Harriet landed in theaters amid strong awards buzz and some controversy. Should movie fans give Harriet a shot? Here’s our take!

Fans love superheroes. We relish origin stories of underdogs who discover their powers and learn to harness them for good. The new film, Harriet, is the story of a real-life hero who does just that.

Harriet Tubman didn’t have x-ray vision or telekinetic abilities. She couldn’t fly or freeze time. She didn’t even have a cape. But Tubman did beat the odds, find inner strength, and risk her life to save others over and over again. She was a hero, says the film’s director, Kasi Lemmons, and the biopic, Harriet, is her origin story.

Ex-slave, Harriet Tubman, became the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. The film explores driving forces behind Harriet Tubman’s choice to jeopardize her liberty for the sake of friends, family, and even strangers. Harriet doesn’t exhibit the size, the sizzle, or the special effects of a typical modern-day big-screen superhero movie. But this story of a great American hero has heart.

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In theory, Harriet possesses all of the components that should produce a solid historical drama that soars during awards season. The film boasts a talented director and stellar cast who partnered to bring a piece of history to life. But does the film deliver?

Harriet director and co-writer, Kasi Lemmons, has a knack for period films. She directed two 1960s-era films, Eve’s Bayou, starring Samuel L. Jackson and the biopic, Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle. Both films are rated R (that is relevant, I promise), and Lemmons captures the soul of the 60s beautifully. However, Harriet depicts a watered-down pre-Civil War America with a PG-13 rating.

Considering Lemmons’ history of directing legit period pieces with suitable ratings for the material, it makes me wonder if the studio dictated the decision to secure a PG-13 rating. It is utterly impossible to produce a truthful representation of slavery, while bound by PG-13 restrictions. However, PG-13 movies typically have the potential to attract wider audiences, and more box office bucks, which is why studios often shy away from “R” territory.

Many times, filmmakers can dial back the violence, swearing, or adult content to hit the PG-13 mark without compromising the creative vision. In this case, an R-rating would have allowed for a more accurate depiction of the brutality that was characteristic of the time. Showing these horrors would have better demonstrated how high the stakes were for Tubman every time she returned to the South.

That said, as the director, Kasi Lemmons produced rich content, regardless of the rating constraints. Lemmons shot Harriet on location in Virginia and used carefully chosen settings to represent the Underground Railroad.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HAR RIET, a Good Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features /

Much of the film takes place in heavily wooded areas, similar to routes that escaped slaves probably took to avoid capture. Lemmons takes care to add small details to illustrate the scarcity of food, clothing, and supplies, as well as the harshness of the terrain that runaway slaves had to endure. Throughout the narrative, Lemmons shines a light on the internal scars inflicted by slave masters, and the actors bring genuine emotion to these moving scenes.

The stars of the film are incredibly gifted. Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet Tubman, and singer Janelle Monáe, Tony Award-winner Leslie Odeon Jr., and Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Nettles also star. While Harriet has been praised for stellar performances, negative reactions to the casting of Cynthia Erivo as Tubman undermines some of the excitement.

Erivo is a talented yet polarizing lead actress. The Nigerian-British bombshell has been criticized for her perceived disdain for African-Americans. Because of this, some fans question why Erivo was chosen to portray a prominent Black American hero. The obvious answer? She’s wicked talented.

Questionable tweets aside, Erivo packs loads of artistic genius into her five-foot, one-inch frame. The 32-year-old powerhouse has already earned an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony Award. Now, she brings her A-game as Harriet Tubman. Film critics and fans alike praise her portrayal in the film.

If Cynthia Erivo does manage to snag the Oscar for her performance in Harriet, despite the backlash from detractors, she will become one of the few members of the EGOT Winners Club. In my opinion, she has a good shot.

Aside from the casting backlash and MPAA rating misstep, I think Harriet still has a lot going for it. The timing of the film is impeccable, and I’m not talking about awards season. A movie like this can make a huge difference during this pivotal time in history. As women and minorities in entertainment and other industries fight for equality, a movie about a powerful Black woman, starring a powerful Black woman, directed by a powerful Black woman is in theaters now. And Harriet is killing it.

Based on the Rotten Tomatoes score, the majority of critics and fans agree that Harriet is a biopic worth seeing. With most critics giving the film a thumbs up, the film rates a healthy 73% on the Tomatometer. Moviegoers are even more enthusiastic about Harriet. At the time of writing, the audience score stands at a whopping 98%.

The takeaway? The star of the film probably won’t win any popularity contests anytime soon – at least not stateside. But Harriet could be a heavy hitter this awards season. More importantly, Harriet, could help inspire the next generation of heroes.

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Harriet is now playing in theaters. Will you check it out? Comment and join the discussion.