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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.
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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?
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?
- In theaters: November 1, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: January 28, 2020
- Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr.
- Director: Kasi Lemmons
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Character strengths: Courage, Integrity
- Run time: 125 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
- Last updated: February 7, 2020
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