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‘Harriet’ – A real superhero we should all cherish… (review) – Toronto International Film Festival 2019

‘Harriet’ – A real superhero we should all cherish… (review) – Toronto International Film Festival 2019

True story seeks us to fight for others and seek justice…

By Sailesh Ram

SOME films are made to be forgotten – while others are made to last a lifetime…

You can’t help feeling – ‘Harriet’ – is a film people will want to see again and again.

It is an incredible story – and told skilfully and lovingly here, and British-born Cythia Erivo (also in Steve McQueen’s 2018 ‘Widows’) gives Harriet dignity, poise and courage as the woman herself, who not only wins her own freedom but manages to get hundreds of others out of slavery and to freedom.

Director Kasi Lemmons (‘Eve’s Bayou’ {1997}, ‘Talk To Me’ {2007}) keeps the focus relatively straight and there are moments of great tension when you know a slip will cost Harriet and her charges their lives. Even though you know she will survive, the rational part of you will ask, just how…

Perhaps for British audiences the story is not so well-known: Harriet Tubman is an iconic woman whose story is woven into the fabric of resistance and change in US anti-slavery history – initially through her own efforts (and the practical strength of supporting others in their freedom bid) and then more latterly in the American Civil War as a woman who actually led others into battle.

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) has a compelling. screen presence…

We join Harriet in the film as she bids to win freedom from her Master. She is about 25 years old and is married to a freed slave (in Maryland in 1849, the state has a mix) – but her Master isn’t interested and contemptuously dismisses the idea. Distraught, she prays that her tormentor should die and that she can secure her freedom. The old man does indeed croak it, but his son, who feels some sort of attachment to Harriet (as she nursed him through typhoid), decides to sell her – separate her from her family and have done with her completely. But his plan is an abject failure – Harriet makes sure of that. 

Her faith in God is very strong, she believes this force is helping her – and there are many times when rationally speaking, she should have succumbed but time and again she survives, has a stroke of luck and then forges ahead.

Escaping alone and in the middle of the night, with Gideon (Joe Alwyn), her Master’s son looking for her – she successfully battles the elements and evades those who have joined the search and makes it north to befriend William Still (Leslie Odom Jr). Still was a well-known activist and someone who shares Harriet’s passion for justice and freedom. 

The climate is turning – more slave owners are feeling the pinch – Harriet, known to her slave owners and family as ‘Minty’,  has created this crisis. At one point, she is referred to as the anti-slavery activist known as Moses. Her myth proceeds her.

Almost as soon as she has won her freedom, she thinks about saving her family – her father is a freed slave, but her mother and sister remain tied to Gideon. There are twists and turns and Cynthia is portrayed as a woman of deep purpose and prepared to challenge patriarchy and sexism at every step – a woman very much ahead of her time.  

This is an absorbing, well-paced drama with Erivo carrying the weight of this story very ably on her shoulders. There are fine performances throughout and it would be hard not to imagine Erivo walking the Oscars Red Carpet as a nominee for best actress. You go, girl! 

ACV rating:**** (out of five)

ACV saw ‘Harriet’ at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019 on September 11.

Seen our red carpet interview?

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture