TIFF Review: ‘Harriet’ Imagines the History of Harriet Tubman as a Familiar Biblical Adventure

Harriet directed by Kasi Lemmons shows Harriet Tubman’s (Cynthia Erivo) journey from escaping slavery to becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She helped free around 300 enslaved people through 19 trips.

The movie focuses on what drives Harriet

Cynthia Erivo in 'Harriet'
Cynthia Erivo in ‘Harriet’ | Courtesy of TIFF

The movie focuses on what drives Harriet and that is her faith and determination. Her faith is heavily tied to her suffering from a head injury, which leads her to losing consciousness at times. Her determination leads to a lot of interesting interactions between Harriet and other people.

Gregory Allen Howard and Lemons wrote the screenplay and they do a wonderful job at including the conflicts between enslaved people, formerly enslaved people, and Black people who have never experienced slavery. The depiction of these dynamics ensures the movie is focused on those affected the most by the institution of slavery.

Harriet avoids most tropes when it comes to movies that focus on slavery

Harriet avoids most tropes when it comes to movies that focus on this institution. We don’t get brutal violent whipping scenes, or any depiction of rape.

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What we do see is the after effects of these things by showing scarred bodies or through dialogue. That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t show violence at all. It’s just the violence isn’t handled the same way.

The same thing can be said about those who wield violence against enslaved people. There is not too much time spent on the slave owners of Harriet’s family. We understand their motivation is money and use racism to try and keep people enslaved.

Joe Alwyn plays Gideon, who is the son in this family. His character isn’t based on one person, but is a composite character. The writing of him reflects that with not giving a lot of details about him. The story benefits from that because it further centers its star with how his actions affect her.

Erivo does a fine job taking on the role of Tubman. The role is a physical and emotional one. She brings out the humanity of someone who has become a legend to many.

Harriet has a very specific take on Tubman and it leaves things open for other takes in the future

With that said, Harriet is directly compared to Moses. This happened in real life with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison nicknaming her “Moses.” The movie then leans into that comparison and makes her story feel like a relatively modern biblical adventure.

The movie is very stylized because of this and doesn’t feel like a biopic. It also focuses on a very specific portion of her life so it doesn’t cover everything. These are good things in that Harriet has a very specific take on Tubman and it leaves things open for other takes in the future.

Overall the drama is one that can be appreciated by many people given the tropes it avoids. It will feel like a familiar story and will therefore resonate with many.

Harriet will be released in theaters on Nov. 1.