Most of us learned about the Underground Railroad and famous conductor Harriet Tubman in middle and high school. But many textbooks and lesson plans only skim the surface of the reality and history of slavery in America. Biopic HARRIET aims to bring more of the fight to light through the eyes of the courageous Tubman.
The film is set in Maryland in the 1840s. Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), then known as Araminta "Minty" Ross, is living under slavery with her mother and siblings, while her father and husband are free. During this time, about half the state's black residents are free and half are enslaved, and HARRIET is intentional in showing that "free" still comes with limitations and does not mean equal.
Despite the risks, when her master, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), threatens to sell her downriver like her sister, Minty makes the decision to run — 100 miles alone, in the dark, to Philadelphia. You'll find yourself holding your breath as she braves the harsh journey and tries to outrun the determined Gideon, who has an inexplicable attachment to Minty, a mixed sense of ownership, fear and even fondness.
The moment Minty crosses the border to freedom is heavy with historical significance and emotional, especially set against the backdrop of a sprawling hillside during sunrise.
She is finally safe and free to build her own life as Harriet Tubman, which she chooses from her mother's first name and husband's last name. She's supported by anti-slavery activist William Still (Leslie Odem Jr.) and a sophisticated, free-born business owner named Marie (Janelle Monáe). But Harriet can't stop thinking about and yearning for her family back in Maryland, and so she risks her very life, again, to go back.
Over the years, Harriet makes the journey to Maryland and back again and again, leading hundreds of slaves to freedom. Even when the Fugitive Slave Act passes and there are no more safe places in America, Harriet helps slaves flee to Canada, a seemingly impossible 500-mile trek.
Throughout the film, and lifted from the pages of history, Harriet has visions — "spells" in which she talks to God and he helps guide her way to avoid capture. Director Kasi Lemmons shows these as visual premonitions, an interesting approach in the biopic genre that adds a spiritual, supernatural element to the film.
Tubman's story and accomplishments in the fight against slavery are truly extraordinary, and HARRIET is a beautiful tribute to her passion and tenacity, with Erivo delivering a career-elevating, Oscar®-worthy performance.
Make sure you see HARRIET in theatres when the film opens November 1.