Movie review: ‘Harriet’ tells true story of real-life hero from history

While “Terminator: Dark Fate” was billed as the must-see big-budget blockbuster in theaters this past weekend (interestingly, it ended up under-performing), it wasn’t the new movie that most caught my attention.

I saw a trailer for the historical biopic “Harriet” — about American icon and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman — before the Downton Abbey movie earlier this fall, and it was a trailer that immediately made me think “I have to see this movie.”

Biopics are not always my favorite film genre, because I believe it’s tricky to distill real-life events down to a two-hour movie. How much of what the film depicts should be true, and when it is okay to take a little artistic license for the sake of the film’s narrative? And at what point does changing these details for the sake of the film’s pacing make the movie dishonest?

Biopics can also end up feeling a little “by-the-numbers” (sometimes it feels like if you’ve seen one biopic, you’ve seen them all).

While the Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus states that “Harriet” is “undermined by its frustratingly formulaic approach,” I disagree with that statement. While most biopics follow a certain pattern, “Harriet” was packed with genuine emotion and heartbreak, with a stunning lead performance by Cynthia Erivo as Harriet.

Before the Civil War, Harriet was married to a free man but was herself a slave. She yearns for freedom, so that she and her husband can live as equals and have children who aren’t doomed to the same fate she was.

However, Harriet learns that the owners of the farm she is enslaved at are intending to sell her. Harriet vows that she will be free or die, and begins an extraordinary, perilous journey to freedom in the North.

Harriet could have easily stayed in Philadelphia in relative safety, but she was unwilling to leave her family and friends behind in the South.

She risks her freedom again and again and again to escort slaves to safety, letting no one tell her what she is and is not capable of.

I remember learning about Harriet Tubman in school history books, but one of the things I love most about film as an artistic medium is the power it has to bring stories to life in a very visceral way. This film does a great job helping you to see these events through Harriet’s eyes — her dreams, hopes, sorrows, and fears.

When Harriet is fleeing for her life in the woods, you feel as though you are running alongside her. I found myself whispering “Run, run, run!” in the theater as Harriet struggled to stay ahead of the men that had been sent to catch her.

Slavery is one of the ugliest chapters in America’s history, and films like “Harriet” are an important reminder of the horrors humankind is capable of. The Civil War may have ended more than 150 years ago, but racism is sadly still alive and well.

The legacy that Harriet Tubman leaves is one of freedom and hope, inspiring us to keep fighting the good fight. This is a powerful film about an extraordinary woman, and I highly recommend taking a trip to the theater to see it.

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