Harriet (2019) 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

One of the most powerful films of the last decade, Harriet follows the courageous actions of Harriet Tubman, infamous among white slave owners for her skilled, repeated successes in aiding dozens of escaped slaves to find freedom before the Civil War.

A woman of profound faith, Minty (Cynthia Erivo) has cared for her "white family" well over the years, and now respectfully asks for her freedom. Her previous owner dictated in his will that, once her mother reached 45 years old, she and her children should be freed. But her current owner tears it up in front of her, and intends to sell her downriver just to make a point. Desperate for freedom, Minty kisses her husband farewell and makes a run for it into the woods. Though pursued by the callous and cruel Gideon (Joe Alwyn), miraculously she manages to escape and find safety in Philadelphia.

There, an abolitionist named William Still (Leslie Odem Jr.) connects her to a free black woman, Marie (Janelle MonĂ¡e), who finds her a "real playing job." Minty also chooses her "free name" -- Harriet Tubman. And, a year later, prompted by a prophetic dream, she decides to return south to fetch her husband... a decision that forever changes the course of abolitionist history.

Though some events are fictionalized, in other ways the script stays true to the life of this remarkable woman. Single-handedly responsible for freeing over 70 slaves, Harriet Tubman led a truly incredible life. The film does not shy away from showing the callous reality of these people's mistreatment, nor of the unfathomable attitudes of their owners, who casually discuss selling them as one might now consider selling a car. It also allows its African American heroes and heroines to shine, by allowing them to remain front and center throughout the story. There are very few positive white roles (other than a brief cameo by the abolitionist William Seward). It's also respectful to Harriet's faith, and her "visions" or "spells" -- she sees things before they happen and knows she needs to act. She spends much time in prayer, even for her enemies. In a powerful moment, she faces down the man who terrorized her, sold her family downriver, and intended to kill her -- and she does not shoot him.

The acting is wonderful. The costumes are lovely when they need to be, historically accurate most of the time, and shabby when required. It's a hard movie to watch, given the historically accurate racism prevalent in its depiction of the past, but also an important one. I think everyone should see it, at least once.

Sexual Content
None, though one veiled reference may reference rape (making sure a man "has time with her alone"). References to half-white slaves (borne out of wedlock to their white masters). Various characters return to find their spouses have married and/or moved on with other people in their absence.
 
Language:
Several uses of GD, and Jesus. Dozens of uses of the n-word, always used in a derogatory manner and by white slave owners but still hard to listen to.
 
Violence:
Infrequent but cruel. A white man bashes a black man's face in, repeatedly punching him for information about an escaped slave and eventually, ruining his right eye. The same man, and another man, beat up a free black woman for information about her friends; we see them from a distance, half hidden behind a table, punching her in the face and kicking her in the head (this kills her). A man threatens a woman by strangling her and threatening to sell her kids unless she gives him information. Various characters wield guns and sometimes shoot at each other. Harriet has visions of a bloody battlefield and tells a man he will die in this place, in the future, surrounded by death.

Other:
The rampant racism and cruelty of slave owners is hard to watch; they discuss slaves as property and sell them off to pay their debts, separate mothers from children and husbands from wives. Some events are fictionalized (Harriet's owner is a composite between various owners raised alongside their eventual "property"; and Marie is fictional) but others are accurate.