‘Harriet’ Aptly Depicts Nuanced Courage of Tubman

To be released on the first of November, director Kasi Lemmons takes the story of esteemed anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman to the big screen in her new film Harriet. The film dissects the life of Tubman, focusing primarily on her escape from slavery and her yearning to return to the Deep South to lead her friends and family to freedom. Her valiant actions and fearless mentality are expertly portrayed, enabling the film to tell her story with ample appreciation for the American hero. 

Director Kasi Lemmons, primarily known for playing Ardelia Mapp in Silence of the Lambs, emphasizes themes of perseverance, womanhood, and faith successfully throughout the film. Tubman’s initial return to the South is depicted as her attempt to bring her husband to the North, but when it is discovered that he had taken a new wife in the time of her absence, Tubman has a change of heart. Guided by the voice of God in intense scenes of prayer shown consistently throughout the film, Tubman comes to understand her purpose in life as helping to extend freedom to others by guiding them along the Underground Railroad. 

The role of Tubman is perfectly executed by British actress Cynthia Erivo (best known for her performance as Celie in the 2015 Broadway musical The Color Purple). Erivo effortlessly captures the strong, magnanimous nature of Tubman and captures her determination while the character discovers her sense of self. Joining Erivo in bringing the story to life, Leslie Odom Jr. plays the role of William Still, a Northerner who aids Tubman’s plan and provides resources for her various returns to the South to lead slaves to freedom. 

Though the film is serious in nature due to its portrayal of a historical topic, Lemmons tosses in moments of comic relief that work to keep the interest of the viewer throughout the film. Tubman’s blunt, unwavering character is a source of laughs on various occasions, as many characters (primarily men of high authority) are left unsure with how to confront a figure of such high self-confidence. 



The cinematography of the film is relatively consistent with that of typical biopics. Flare is added in Tubman’s recollection of memories corresponding to her scenes of prayer. Bright, monochrome scenes are flashed across the screen in a sporadic bouts throughout the film, nearly blinding the audience but serving as memories that are understood to be points of motivation for Tubman prior to moments that require insane courage. 

Harriet serves as a vital reminder Harriet Tubman’s heroism. After watching the film, one is left with memories of Tubman’s gritty sacrifice and strength. Sitting in a large screening room, the audience laughed, cried, and applauded as the life of Tubman played out before them. Leaving the screening, audience members were rightfully instilled with inspiration.

Lemmons’ decision to adopt the life of Tubman to the big screen reflects the much larger discussion on the monumental impact of Tubman on American history. The film is a conversation starter and a reflection of how a single figure can leave such a positive effect on the lives of others. 

The film ends with the arrival of Tubman’s mother and father in the North. Before the credits roll, a brief conclusion of her life is summarized, only adding to Tubman’s historic contributions to America. Harriet ultimately encapsulates the life of a liberator, and further cements Tubman’s prominence in history.

Featured Image by Focus Features