The first feature film on the story of Harriet Tubman, Harriet, made its premiere Tuesday night at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Harriett is directed by Kasi Lemmons, best known for her work directing Eve Bayou, Talk to Me, and Black Nativity, who was on hand for the introduction of the film by festival director Cameron Bailey.
“There are 30 films about Gen. Custer,” said Bailey. “This is the first film about Harriet Tubman.”
The film stars Tony award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo as the legendary leader of the Underground Railroad leader, telling the story of her life as a youthful abolitionist who escaped in slavery and returned to help others in the 20s and 30s.
“There are pictures of her that have been painted from the wrong time period almost,” said Erivo to the San Francisco Gate. “It’s important to know this was a really young woman who took a lot of risk in what she was doing.”
Tubman was born into slavery as Araminta Ross on the eastern shores of Maryland. Her escape was to the city of Philadelphia but would return to assist over 70 people at a time through the Underground Railroad. In addition, Tubman would work as a scout, spy, and nurse for the Union Army in the American Civil War and led 150 Black soldiers on a gunboat raid in South Carolina rescuing over 700 slaves.
“When we think of Harriet, we kind of don’t see her womanhood. That’s partly because in the pictures we have of her, she’s an older woman,” said Lemmons. “There’s a picture found fairly recently of Harriet as a young woman, and that was my inspiration. There was this very small, young woman who managed to do incredible things.”
Lemmons also states the product was guided by the spirit of Tubman and not created to fill the void of a cinematic oversight.
“I really thought about this as a task I took very solemnly of bringing Harriet to life so that young girls could see this young woman heroine, and that the world could see her as this fierce, strong, feminine presence that she was,” said Lemmons.
Receptions to Harriet after the Toronto premiere have been mild. The New York Post praises Erivo for an Oscar-worthy performance but details the film as “well-intentioned” and “never really breaks free of conventional biopic mode or demonstrates any particular stylistic flair in her telling of the pivotal events of Tubman’s life.” The film is detailed as a “far cry from the brutal realism,” in comparison to 12 Years a Slave.
Similarly to the Post, Indie Wire praises Erivo as the film’s “soulful centerpiece” but states that it “doesn’t attempt to reinvent the biopic.”
Harriet also stares Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae. The film will be released nationwide on November 1.