Harriet – The Long Overdue Biopic of Harriet Tubman

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Women’s History Month offers the opportunity to shine a spotlight on often overlooked contributions to culture. This March, UWE third-year BA Film Studies students are providing a series of weekly film reviews that showcase women’s lives globally. This week, Aoife Ranyell reviews ‘Harriet’.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, in Harriet, dir. Kasi Lemmons, United International Pictures, 2019 [Description: close up of a woman’s face with a pensive expression looking into the distance, there are trees behind her in the background.]

Women’s History Month was created to highlight and celebrate the contributions of women – past and present – in history and modern society. For all of us, there will be a handful of influential names that come to mind when we think about significant female figures who have made a difference in the world, and for many, one of those women will be American abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman.

Despite her extraordinary life and work – born into slavery in Maryland, escaping and fleeing on foot almost 100 miles to Pennsylvania (a journey that could’ve taken up to 3 weeks), subsequently returning to help rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, going on to become an armed scout in the Civil War, and become a prominent activist for women’s suffrage – Harriet, is the first biopic to tell Harriet Tubman’s story. After being in the works for several years, Harriet finally came to fruition in 2019. Female-directed, by the wonderful Kasi Lemmons, and boasting a stellar cast including Cynthia Erivo as Harriet, Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters, Janelle Monáe, and many more, Harriet is an accessible film for those that aren’t the most aware of Tubman.

Lemmons beautifully captures the sprawling landscapes of the American countryside basking in golden sunlight, and Harriet’s aggressive fight for her freedom. The visuals are complemented by a powerful and moving score (composed by Terence Blanchard) – which is a little marmite at times, but it is undeniably affective. However, the real standouts are the performances: Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Harriet is enthralling, and her command carries the film along. Even without dialogue she manages to keep control of the film as her eyes capture Harriet’s blazing spirit, so it’s no surprise that it garnered her several nominations, including Best Actress from the Academy.

Although it’s not the most ground-breaking biopic, nor does it really delve into the intricacies or the real adversities of Tubman’s life and story, Harriet is an important watch, and pays a respectful tribute to an extraordinarily important woman. A woman whose courage and heroism truly impacted America, and who deserved a biopic many years before this.

If you’re not a fan of the Hollywood-style biopic, but want to learn about Harriet Tubman, then YouTube has several documentaries (long and short) available, including:

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