Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet is a biopic about abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman that feels as if it were made not in 2019 but the 1990s. It’s part of an old-school subset of movies based on true events that work more as history lessons than as cinema. Think, for example, of Apollo 13 (1995) or Amistad (1997) — solidly made works that are artistically straightforward but have something valuable to teach you. That might sound like a harsh criticism, but it isn’t. If your high school American history teacher were to put on Lemmons’ new film in lieu of a lesson plan, you probably wouldn’t hear many complaints. Harriet may be by-the-numbers, but those numbers are fairly extraordinary.
Cynthia Erivo gets the starring role she’s long deserved as Tubman, and the film follows her from her escape from slavery through her work freeing slaves and into the Civil War, where she led a militia and served as a spy for the Union. The movie primarily focuses on her liberation of slaves, specifically from the plantation she escaped from, showing mounting conflict and frustration between Harriet and her ex-master (Joe Alwyn) as she returns time and again to rescue friends and family members.
Erivo is pitch-perfect casting as Tubman, getting to use her natural gravitas and toughness to its fullest extent. She also gets to sing, communicating to the slaves she’s trying to save by using spirituals. Erivo’s backed by a fantastic cast of black talent, including Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Clarke Peters and Vondie Curtis-Hall, all of whom (Peters and Curtis-Hall in particular) make the most of their roles, even if the script doesn’t always give them much to do.
Harriet isn’t a terribly introspective movie, content simply to tell a story rather than dig into its protagonist’s psyche. Fortunately, Tubman’s experiences are naturally action-packed, with built-in stakes that never need to be explained to the audience to communicate their importance. Lemmons wants to show Tubman as an epic hero — which she definitely was — rather than a complicated figure (which she almost certainly was, too). Lemmons more or less succeeds, even if the imagery she uses to do it couldn’t be more obvious if she shouted it directly at your face. After one particularly intense, climactic confrontation, Lemmons and cinematographer John Toll have Erivo’s Harriet literally ride into the sunset, leaving her adversary cowering in the dust.
The cinematography isn’t the only thing about Harriet that feels a little too obvious. Terence Blanchard’s score is pretty much exactly the kind of music you’d expect to hear in a movie like this; broad, dramatic and empowered. At just the points you’d expect, Erivo has emotional monologues where she explains herself, or takes others to task, and they’re the perfect length for an Oscar soundbite. There are times when the movie leans so hard into its prestige picture trappings that it verges on self-parody.
As goofy as Harriet can sometimes be in its lack of self-awareness, however, much of it remains solid meat-and-potatoes filmmaking. It’s buoyed along by its protagonist’s incredible life, which itself is inherently cinematic, and it gives a long-overdue, gold-plated platform to someone who absolutely deserves that treatment. Harriet may not be challenging, and it may not be great art, but it’s hard to fault the film for how much it wants its audience to respect its subject.