Historical biopics are a dime a dozen.
Every year, there is a slew of different films based on the lives of major figures in history. Filmmakers love to dramatize notable scientists, presidents, athletes, writers or any other historically significant individual whose positive public sentiments make it easy to gain publicity. Some of these biopics are utterly fantastic films that deserve to be seen, such as “First Man,” my favorite film of last year, “The Imitation Game” and “Selma.” These all have showcased how incredible biopics can be.
Unfortunately, for every great biopic, there is an awful one that comes along with it. Films like 2016’s “Free State of Jones” show that an unfocused and messy biopic can lead to an incredibly boring experience.
The latest major biopic to hit theaters is “Harriet,” a film that showcases the life of Harriet Tubman and her work with the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. The film opens with her life as a slave in the Southern United States a few years prior to the start of the Civil War. After one of her slave owners dies, she manages to escape the plantation on which she was enslaved. She then makes the 100-mile trek to freedom in the North entirely on her own.
When Harriet reaches the North, she decides to go back to the plantation from which she came to free her family instead of creating a life for herself in the North. This decision ultimately leads to Harriet becoming a key player in the Underground Railroad, a secret organization that assisted many runaway slaves in their journey to freedom.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from “Harriet.” I wasn’t blown away by the trailers, but the subject matter of the film, in combination with its excellent cast (which includes the likes of Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae) did pique my interest.
While “Harriet” isn’t on the same level as other stellar biopics set in this period, like “12 Years a Slave” or “Lincoln,” it’s still a powerful film that effectively humanizes its central figure and provides an emotional story from which audiences can learn from.
I don’t mean audiences will learn from this film by taking away some grand message. I would hope we all know by now that slavery is bad. What I mean is that “Harriet” is genuinely educational. I walked out of the film not only having a better understand of Harriet Tubman and her place in history, but also of the Underground Railroad and the workings of the U.S. Government prior to the Civil War.
This is the type of film that feels like it was made to be shown in a high school history class, and I mean that as a compliment. It does an excellent job of painting Tubman and her mission in a way that is easy to follow and understand.
The performances in the film were mostly good, but the real standout is unsurprisingly Erivo in the lead role.
Erivo burst onto the acting scene last year with roles in “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.” She provided superb performances in both of those films, but with “Harriet,” Erivo is really starting to prove that she’s a powerhouse actress who people should be taking note of. She portrays Tubman as a surprisingly reserved character. She doesn’t speak up very often, but when she does it always makes an impact. This is a woman who is completely selfless. She genuinely cares about helping others and doing what she believes is right, and Erivo is able to let the heroics of Tubman’s actions speak for themselves. She doesn’t feel like a superhero, she’s just a normal woman who decided to take control of her life.
Is “Harriet” the type of biopic that is going to get a lot of awards recognition? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time.
This is a film that manages to take an iconic figure in American history and make her feel like an actual person. It humanizes Tubman in a way that I haven’t seen before and that’s what makes the film stand out.