Harriet or: Why This American Hero Belongs on the $20 Bill

The Stream: A little paint-by-numbers historical biopic for such a towering figure in American history.

The Big Screen: Cynthia Erivo embodying the strength, perseverance, and fearlessness of a remarkable human being.

The Final Bill: Even though you know how Harriet’s story goes, this movie is suspenseful and deeply inspirational.

-Trip Fontaine


Director: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman), Leslie Odom, Jr. (as William Still), Janelle Monae (as Marie Buchanon)
Genre: Biography, Drama
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes
Notable Trailers: 1917, Bombshell, A Hidden Life, The Rhythm Section, The Photograph, Just Mercy, Dark Waters

A five-foot tall, female runaway slave escapes the clutches of a jealous slaveowner, and she treks to freedom nearly 100 miles from where she had been enslaved with nothing except desperation, her wits, and faith propelling her on. Harriet Tubman is one of a handful of well-known African American Historical figures that are taught even outside of their designated month. In fact, she is such a towering figure that she was slated to be the new face of the $20 bill. So, why did it take until 2019 for this story to get the Hollywood treatment? I hope it was just because everyone involved along the way wanted to give the woman the respect she deserves. I don’t know if what Harriet is is all that it should have been, but it is nevertheless a respectable effort that grabs your heart and doesn’t let it go.

Harriet, as directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo as the erstwhile, Araminta Ross, takes no time setting the stage to get Araminta on her journey. The farm owned by the Brodess family is no place to raise a family. She must live free of die. Lemmons ratchets up the tension and builds the suspense of every moment of Araminta’s trek. Although the escape of Araminta, soon-to-be Harriet Tubman, is well-known, the tension of every step away from enslavement and the fear of capture from slave trackers is relentless. Her determination is equally unrelenting.

Erivo plays Harriet as impassioned as she must have been, not only for her own freedom but for that of her family. This woman is fierce, cunning, determined and every other adjective for heroic. Erivo embodies each aspect with such a spirit that captures the audience. She is soulful and every expression is heartrending. There are others in the ensemble like Leslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monae, who play people that help Harriet in her freedom and introduce her to the Underground Railroad; and, there are also villains like the slaveowners played by Jennifer Nettles and Joe Alwyn, who become a bit cartoonish. They all really pale in comparison to the powerful presence of Erivo with some divine inspiration of Harriet herself.

There are a few quibbles with the film. As biopics go, the truth of the history is what makes Harriet worthy. There are not any tricks or gimmicks that make the film itself anymore of a typical historical biographical film. Also, Lemmons tries to explain why Harriet takes the risks she does and how she is successful in eluding capture, but it doesn’t always work. Lastly, there are two instances where there is a comedic shift that feels out of place.

S2S Rating Scale

Ultimately, Harriet is a must-see movie. The story of Harriet Tubman is remarkable. To see this dramatization reminds one of the struggle that some Americans had to go through just to get what should have been inherent in their simple existence. Tubman is an American hero, who deserves all of this recognition and more. Go to the theater early and often, and probably bring a tissue or two, just in case.

Note: Stay for the credits to hear Harriet‘s anthem, “Stand Up,” sung incredibly by the brilliant, Cynthia Erivo. If you are not crying by the end of the first chorus, rush to the hospital to make sure your heart is not a cold, cold block of ice.