Harriet (Subtitled) (12A)
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Starring: Janelle Monae, Lesley Odom Jr, Jennifer Nettles, Joe Alwyn, Cynthia Erivo
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer(s): Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Listings: London | Rest of UK and Ireland
In 1849 Dorchester County, Araminta Ross is a slave at the mercy of owner Eliza Brodess and her venomous son Gideon. She makes her escape and safely finds her way to Philadelphia, where she rechristens herself Harriet and befriends abolitionist William Still and landlady Marie Buchanon. While Still counsels Harriet to act with caution, she secretly returns to Dorchester County disguised as a young man called Moses and shepherds hundreds of slaves to safety on the Underground Railroad.
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LondonNet Film Review
The biggest surprise about writer-director Kasi Lemmons' biopic of crusading abolitionist Harriet Tubman is that it has taken Hollywood so long to immortalise the 19th century African-American trailblazer. Born into slavery in Maryland as Araminta Ross, Tubman wriggled free from the clutches of her masters and became a conductor on a secret network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She personally shepherded fellow slaves across the border to safety, served as a spy for the Union Army and remains one of the only women to lead an armed expedition on American soil...
Scripted by Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard, Harriet romanticises the lead character on a pristine surface level, relying on a barnstorming lead performance from London-born Cynthia Erivo to atone for a sinful lack of character development. The film's most intriguing, psychologically complex relationship, between Harriet and her owner's son, evades deep and satisfying consideration. Meanwhile, supporting players are reduced to historical footnotes, portrayed vividly by an esteemed ensemble cast including Tony Award-winning Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr, Janelle Monae and Clarke Peters. By contrast, composer Terence Blanchard's score is bombastic overkill.
In 1849 Dorchester County, Araminta Ross (Erivo) and most of her family are slaves owned by Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde), who coldly refuses to acknowledge the clan's claim to freedom. Minty's husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and father Ben (Peters), both free men, are powerless to intervene. "You, your momma, your brothers and your sisters belong to me for life," Brodess snarls at a distraught Araminta, who suffers regular fainting fits, which she contends are prescient visions from God. Minty prays aloud for Brodess to pay dearly for his heartless transgression and, on cue, he dies. Widow Eliza Brodess (Jennifer Nettles) and venomous son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) assume control of the plantation. They advertise troublemaker Minty for sale. In response, she escapes with the help of Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and finds her way to fervent abolitionist William Still (Odom Jr) in Philadelphia, where she assumes the name Harriet Tubman. "By some miraculous means, you have made it 100 miles to freedom!" he gushes in awe. Landlady Marie Buchanon (Monae) offers Harriet safe sanctuary but a life of freedom without loved ones weighs heavily on the escapee. She defies William's stern advice and returns to Maryland to liberate family and neighbours until the "monster called slavery is dead".
Harriet is a worthy but formulaic history lesson energised by an emotionally raw performance from Erivo. She delivers the script's sermons - "God don't mean people to own people!" - with the sincerity and fury they deserve. Tears course down her cheeks more readily than ours.
- Jo Planter
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