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Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes. Haunted by memories of those she left behind, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) ventures back into dangerous territory on a mission to lead others to freedom. With allies like abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and the entrepreneurial Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), Harriet risks capture and death to guide hundreds to safety as one of the most prominent conductors of the Underground Railroad. Witness the story of a woman who defied impossible odds to change the course of her life and the fate of the nation.
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It’s still not an easy fact for many Americans to fathom, even more than a century later.
To place the subject into perspective, look at it this way: While many of us are descended from ancestors who traveled to America from other countries to escape persecution and pursue a life of freedom, many of us are descended from ancestors who were kidnapped from their homes in other countries and transported to America against their will to be bought and sold as property of others, forced to provide manual labor in homes and on farms...and beaten, tortured, raped, maimed, or even executed if they tried to escape to freedom.
Still, many of these enslaved people risked their lives by attempting to flee. And among the most honored and revered of those courageous souls is Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Dorechester, Maryland, Tubman escaped enslavement and made her way, alone and on foot, over 100 miles to freedom in Pennsylvania. Over the years, Tubman risked her life again and again by making some thirteen trips back into Maryland and the southern United States to rescue dozens of others.
One of the strengths of “Harriet,” the new biographical film from Focus Features, is that the picture tells Tubman’s story in a straightforward, unembellished way, without sermonizing or pity, condescension or scolding. Written by director Kasi Lemmons in collaboration with Gregory Allen Howard, who’s also the screenwriter behind the fact-based inspirational drama “Remember the Titans” in 2000, “Harriet” draws its enormous emotional power by depicting the harsh and often difficult historical facts in a serio-documentary style.
“Harriet” draws a direct parallel between the events which preceded the American Civil War and the events described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Even Tubman’s pseudonym, used by the plantation owners who hunt her during her later excursions into the South to transport slaves to freedom, is Moses. And on the strength of the emotional conviction in her quiet and understated performance in the title role, actress Cynthia Erivo accomplishes much the same effect actor Charlton Heston contributed to his role as the Biblical Moses in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.”
To augment the spiritual metaphor, the movie has the audacity--or the courage--to depict, plainly and without a hint of skepticism, Harriet’s “visions.” Sustaining a skull injury at age thirteen as the result of a slavemaster’s fury, Tubman throughout her life experienced periods of dizziness and near unconsciousness, during which she believed God was speaking directly to her and guiding her movements. Asked in the film by an incredulous Philadelphia abolitionist if she actually made the 100-mile journey to freedom alone, Harriet shrugs, “Me and the Lord.” And later, when asked to describe her visions, Harriet remarks simply that they “make God’s voice more clear.”
“Harriet” is receiving encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 72% from Rotten Tomatoes and 66% from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that the picture “serves as a sincere tribute to a pivotal figure in American history...albeit one undermined by its frustratingly formulaic approach.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaTrack award “Harriet” the rare exit grade of A-plus.
Released to 2059 theaters across the United States and Canada, distributor Focus Features expected “Harriet” to earn as much as $9 million during its opening weekend. After earning $3.9 on its opening day alone, the picture ended the weekend with $12 million in earnings, scoring the third place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, behind the new “Terminator: Dark Fate” and the returning DC Comics-inspired “Joker,” now in its fourth week of release.
Director Kasi Lemmons is also the writer and director of the acclaimed “Eve’s Bayou” from 1997, the 2007 biographical film “Talk to Me,” and 2013’s “Black Nativity.” A former actress, Lemmons appeared as Clarice Starling’s FBI roommate Ardelia Mapp in the Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991. Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays Reverend Samuel Green in “Harriet,” is Lemmons' husband.
Also featuring performances by Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae, “Harriet” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and scenes of violence.