Oct 30, 2019

A biography of one of America's true heroines from the Civil War. Her spirit is still fighting against inequality for blacks.

Film reviewed: Harriet

Grade: B+

Director: Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou)

Screenplay: Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans)

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom JR

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 2 h 5 m

By: John DeSando

“You’ll be free or die!” Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo)

After so many films about arguable heroines, it’s fine to have one about a true one, “super” in modern parlance. In the 1849 antebellum South, Harriet Tubman is on her way to becoming “the slave stealer” and eventually “Moses.” During the first part of this emotional and reverential biopic, Harriet needs to leave her family by way of the 100 miles from Maryland, mostly on foot to a slave free Pennsylvania.

Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons, along with Gegory Allen Howard, does an admirable job of showing this relentless heroine begin to become a conductor and  leader of the Underground Railroad by saving a few friends and relatives from the tyrannical and torturing whites. Eventually she will have led over 70 black slaves as far as 600 miles to Canadian freedom.

The film romanticizes and beatifies this historical heroine, aided by Terence Blanchard’s telegraphing, swelling score, with too little depicting her struggles as a slave or as a woman in later life reaping the glory of her experience and pain. Her rapturous direct connection with God adds to the pious, preachy tone.

However, the gifted Erivo (a Tony winner among other honors) quickly draws the audience to Harriet’s side as a caring and resourceful future leader, and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” perfectly supports a rousing montage of Underground escapes. Her facing down authority is not as early as could be expected; she is compliant and obedient for a leader who emerges in her 20’s as a liberator and an historical saint.

The movie Harriet is a glowing tribute to a real hero. Seeing her in action as an armed assault leader in the Civil War would have been the right realist touch to offset the preponderance of seemingly excessive adulation.

Her face will be on the $20 bill if this positive biography has anything to do with it.

“Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.” Tubman

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at