Harriet (2019) Movie Review

For Remembrance Day, I thought it’d be suitable enough to do a review on the woman who deserves to be on America’s 20 dollar bill, and have about 20 other things (holidays, regions, law principles, statues) named after her in her honour. Every single hero in my home country, Canada, deserves their minute of silence and to be remembered forever. I have a great great grandpa who was a dentist for the soldiers in the first World War. I have a great great uncle named Harold, who came to England for the war as a pilot, and was shot down and instantly killed. Another who went to participate was in a submarine that was attacked off the coast of England, and he amazingly managed to be found and rescued, unlike some others in the underwater craft. I should really listen to some stories from my grandpa about them sometime, so I can give more info. For right now, though, someone’s story who definitely shouldn’t be forgotten is Harriet Tubman’s, and it seems Cynthia Erivo agrees with me.

Harriet Tubman’s real name was Araminta Ross, and was known as “Minty” throughout her slave colleagues. When she was about 25, she lived with her husband John at a farm, and they worked under the tyranny of the Brodess family who owned said farm. That family consists of young man Gideon about Minty’s age, as well as sister Eliza, and their big boss father. One day, as the Brodess slaves are recanting their prayers, one family comes up and asks for their baby to be born a free daughter, and not as a slave. They stutteringly explain they have a note from a lawyer to back up their point it is perfectly legal for someone of colour to be free up till 25 years old. You can guess how that would go. Minty tries to remain zen despite a literal and figurative slap in the face from Gideon not much after the debacle.

But just a few hours later, Minty hears news that she has been bought up by a different family for slavery, and that would mean having to move away from her entire family. Distraught, she makes a run for it, John unable to come because he wants to still be able to take care of the rest of the family. Remember, in the mid 19th century, there weren’t security cameras, so logically, with luck and a light foot you could make a dash for it and escape when no one was looking.

But there were still horse carts, dogs who could sniff you out as the hunters were still on your trail, and no cars to help you get long distances. Yet against all odds, Minty arrived to a safe haven having followed instructions from her family on where to go and who to talk to. But her journey to freedom is far from over. Maybe it will only be over when “this monster called slavery is dead.”

I’ve had an interest in Harriet Tubman ever since I read this 25-paged book on the 10 most daring escapes. I don’t remember all of them, but Frank Abagnale’s charade as FBI’s youngest most wanted (the movie Catch me if You Can was inspired from it) was #10. Countless amounts of people daring to escape over (or under) the Berlin Wall was #4. But none of them held a candle to #1, which was Harriet Tubman’s rescues of dozens and eventually several hundreds of slaves. To save the lives of that many people…honestly, Harriet Tubman just might be the biggest hero I have ever heard of, and I have this movie and its history lessons to thank for that judgment.

I’ve always had an interest in people who risk death and 20 extra penal years to escape from jail and what goes through their heads, but Harriet Tubman’s heroism is a special kind of story. When I saw the trailer back in the summer, I was stunned and counting down the days before I could see it, and I refrained from doing research for fear I’d learn something vital about the story and lose the punch of seeing it on screen. I’m serious when I say the trailer alone made my heart pound as much as the climax of Avengers: Endgame. It has a spectacular song and shows some of Harriet’s bold, selfless acts that sparked her immortality among those searching for hope.

Now that I’ve viewed it, what I have to say is this very-first cinematic depiction of the real-life hero is terrific, barred from perfection only from being too short and an overly light conclusion. I’ll get these things out of the way; the movie could’ve had about 10 extra minutes of Harriet’s first escape as she trudges days and nights without proper food and limited access to water. Maybe 10 extra minutes throughout to further discuss the obvious racism and intolerance that caused people of colour everywhere to feel the world was against them and always would be, a trait that in the worst of humanity’s modern circumstances feels still alive and poisonous. Perhaps 10 extra minutes to develop some characters more and 5 extra minutes to show off more of a big climax, especially since what we got was a bit underwhelming. That sounds like a lot of negativity for an A- movie, but I’d put it this way: I never wanted this movie to end. And now when it comes to biography movies about intolerance and hatred, you know what I’m looking for.

Despite those things that could’ve been bigger, if the movie chose to have a mightier climax, I think this movie would’ve been an A+, and that’s because what happens in this movie is flat-out terrifying. As Harriet rescues more slaves and gets more nefarious among whites with each job, politicians manage to pass a bill that opens floodgates. I pictured myself in their shoes, imagining an unlimited amount of people after me for daring to be free, ready to pound on my door to shoot me or take me to prison to torture me until my blood dripped through the basement ceiling. And for the authorities to allow it and for justice to never come my way if that happened, and nothing I could do about it.

I also like how they remind us how normalized the horrid word was back in the day, and how the white actors say it with a believable mixture of calmness and prejudice. It helps remind us that to so many people back then and still many people today, discrimination is justified and they would rather die than have a world where they’d have to stand equally alongside their fellow human beings who were different from them just for their race. There are a few white people as well in the shadows who are on Harriet’s side, and there’s even a POC who believes in money first but has a change of heart. There’s so much about this film that isn’t solely about the escapes. Such as the flashbacks we see, which are attributed to an injury the real Harriet Tubman once had; flashbacks which came with a mixture of God giving her guidance and memories of her sisters being chained to a horse cart, off to slavery for life, never to see her again, the memory of their petrified faces all she has to remember them.

I have Cynthia Erivo’s performance to primarily thank for giving me these emotions. Sweet, sad, angry, passionate, adamant, she can pull off any emotion. She embodies Harriet so well, you’d think we were right next to the real Tubman watching her sneak through enemy territory and holding up a gun to prevent bigots from touching her. What’s also noteworthy is Jennifer Nettles’ performance as the slimy and crazy Eliza Brodess. Her fear of being forced onto equal ground and money dwindling because not as many slaves are around to do her farming anymore, and a cry of anger she feels later…it’s all just so satisfactory! Nettles deserves recognition like Imelda Staunton did as Umbridge in Harry Potter for getting us to loathe her and laugh in delight when something bad happens to her.

Harriet Tubman’s first ever movie is not perfect but it’s strong, with a handful of moments that will have viewers jubilant with hope that corruption won’t prevail if we dare to challenge it.

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