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Harriet

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Harriet Movie Poster Image
Tubman biopic includes realistic violence, racial slurs.
  • PG-13
  • 2019
  • 125 minutes
Parents recommend

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 8 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Shows importance of integrity, sticking to your convictions, paying attention to signs and visions, not allowing odds or risk to get in the way of making a difference, making sure no one takes away your dignity or self-worth. Some things are worth risking everything for. Undercurrent of hope throughout film: Harriet has strong conviction that slavery will eventually be a thing of the past.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Harriet Tubman is a courageous, devout, confident, dedicated conductor on the Underground Railroad. She fearlessly travels to the South again and again to guide her family, friends, even strangers to freedom. Both Black and White abolitionists, like William Still, organize Underground Railroad and train/help Harriet learn best practices for bringing people to Pennsylvania. In Maryland, free African Americans secretly help slaves flee North. Clearly negative depictions of slave owners who want to stop their "property" from disappearing. Story depicts bravery of those who didn't/couldn't escape.

Violence

White characters use historically accurate weapons (as well as fists/feet) to pursue, beat, even shoot African Americans -- both free and enslaved. Several characters are beaten bloody, and one is killed in a brutal, close-up scene; another is shot. Young slaves tie up their masters' children to escape. Harriet wields and points her guns to protect herself and slaves she's leading to freedom. Scars shown on characters' backs. Lots of implied violence/talk of past violence, including stories of beatings and rape. Harriet leads armed soldiers in a Civil War battle. Harriet's master menacingly talks to her very close, tells her she belongs to him. Family separations as the result of slaves being sold.

Sex

Couples kiss, touch, embrace (briefly). A Black slave hunter tells a White master that he'll use his payment for "White hos."

Language

Frequent use of "N" word in reference to all African Americans. Language also includes one nonsexual use of "f--king" (followed by the "N" word) as well as "Black bitch," "hell," and "damn." Harriet's young master tells her that having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig: You eventually have to sell it or eat it.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults are briefly shown toasting/drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Harriet is award-winning director Kasi Lemmons' historical drama about Harriet Tubman's evolution from being a young, married slave in Maryland, to her escape to Philadelphia, to her courage to become the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad. Starring Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo as Harriet, the film is intense: Expect frequent use of the "N" word, as well as one use of "f--king" and a few other terms. Violence is often upsetting and almost all aimed at Black characters, both free and enslaved. White slave owners/catchers pursue, beat, and even shoot Black men and women. A few characters die, both from brutal beatings and gun violence; some scenes show the violence close-up. Families are separated when slaves are sold, and slaves tell stories of the horrible things they've experienced. Viewers will learn how Harriet interpreted her visions and seizures as prescient visions from God and how she ultimately took 19 trips into the South and escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom, demonstrating courage and integrity.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byWell-Read1 November 2, 2019

Harriet for Teens not Children

Harriet was an amazing movie. I saw it with my husband and cried and cried and cried But felt pride and inspired. As an African American woman and mother of a 1... Continue reading
Adult Written byallyniph November 3, 2019

Really solid movie about Harriet Tubman

We took our 10 and 12 year olds to see this. It led to some good discussions about her life, slavery, and the historic role of women. There is not a lot of viol... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byLpw916 November 3, 2019

Breathtaking just not for children

This movie is amazing with great female role model. I believe it is a good for teens with the frequent use of the N-word, and one f- word I am not sure it is gr... Continue reading

What's the story?

HARRIET starts during a Sunday church service for slaves at the Maryland plantation where Araminta "Minty" Ross (Cynthia Erivo) lives with her free husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momo), and her family, including her free father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters). When Ben and John plead with Master Brodess (Mike Marunde) to abide by his dead father's wishes to free Ben's wife and her offspring after a certain age, Brodess balks. Minty, who suffers spells that she believes are divine visions, begs God to strike down her master. Brodess dies, and his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), decides to sell Minty. She escapes, leaving John behind, and finds her way up to free Philadelphia. Once in Pennsylvania, Minty renames herself Harriet Tubman and trains with prominent abolitionists like William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) to become a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad. Harriet returns time and time again to rescue both loved ones and complete strangers and guide them to freedom, all while Gideon Brodess hires mercenary slave catchers to track and capture the "Moses" who's helping local slaves escape.

Is it any good?

Erivo's intense, nuanced performance is an achievement, but the filmmakers' insistence on sanctifying Tubman makes an already powerful film unnecessarily melodramatic. Really, every role that the Tony Award winner takes on should include singing, because Erivo's voice is a thing of fierce and startling beauty. Like in the fields and along the Underground Railroad, music plays an important role in the film. Kudos to director Kasi Lemmons for the sequences of Harriet's coded spirituals and the early moment in which actor-singer Jennifer Nettles (who plays the grieving plantation mistress) sings along to the opening church service. If only Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe (who's brilliant in a small but pivotal role as Harriet's Philadelphia friend/boarding-house landlord) could have sung on-screen, too.

The cast is wonderful and the story is important, but the movie suffers in its exploration of Tubman's condition. Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portray her traumatic brain injury as leading to actual divine prescience. The film credits that supposed skill with her ability not only to turn the right way and avoid capture (she never lost anyone she guided to freedom) but also to see the future -- like the time and place of a White man's death while fighting for the Confederacy. Tubman did believe that her visions were inspired by God, but Harriet's focus on her spells as supernatural turns the film into a case for her sainthood and near invincibility rather than concentrating on the ongoing bravery and clarity of purpose she required to continue returning down South. The film is definitely worth seeing, but a little less about the visions and more about the woman would have made it even more powerful.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the historical aspects of Harriet. How much did you already know about Harriet Tubman? What new facts did you learn? Did anything make you want to do more research?

  • What are the character strengths that make Harriet Tubman a role model? Why is she an important inspiration to Americans?

  • Discuss the violence and racial language in the movie. Is it necessary to the story? Why is it important for viewers to understand the violent nature of slavery?

  • How is this movie different from, or similar to, others that explore the subject of racism and the history of slavery in the United States? How does the stain of slavery continue to impact our nation? What are some other films that shed light on the far-reaching impact of slavery?

Movie details

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