Harriet Tubman Gets Her Movie


The reviews of Harriet (2019) have been mixed, with major publications calling the film everything from ‘dutiful‘ and ‘contrived‘ to ‘rousing and powerful‘ and ‘rich, enlightening.’ I’ll come right down the middle and call it a satisfying biography with a solid grounding in history and an entertaining not-too-cliched plot. This movie doesn’t reinvent the biopic form, and director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons doesn’t need to. Harriet Tubman‘s real life is rich and wild enough that a simple telling with strong performances does the trick.

The story covers Tubman’s escape from slavery and shows several of her expeditions to free those still in slavery. The main action takes place from the late 1840s through the 1850s, with a few brief scenes during the Civil War when Tubman lead the Combahee River Raid. The ‘bad guys’ are heavily fictionalized, with her owner’s son becoming an obsessive racist who hires a black slave catcher. But there’s a grain of truth in even those caricatures, and they don’t distract from the otherwise riveting tale.

Since the film is still in theaters in the U.S., I can’t get many photos, but costume designer Paul Tazewell has been doing the media rounds and shared plenty of details about his fine work. Going in, Kendra and I thought this would be a lot of butter-churny boring costumes, we were pleasantly surprised. Sure, the clothes worn by Harriet at the beginning, along with the rest of the enslaved people, are plain, but the garments are rich in details. You can see repairs and patches because the clothes have been handed down and repaired, and the choice of fabrics reflects the specific time and place. Tazewell told Awards Daily about the first costume we see Harriet (played by Cynthia Erivo) in:

“Her first dress was linen. Actually, not for this plantation, but in researching clothes for slaves, the fabric was sometimes woven by the actual slaves. They would weave the fabric. They would grow the cotton or flax and they’d spin it, weave it and make clothes out of it. Often times, the fabrics that were used were specific to a certain plantation. So, if they escaped, they would know where that slave was from. We weren’t quite as specific for this plantation because it wasn’t a very big plantation, so fabrics were purchased by neighboring plantations.”

Harriet (2019)

When Harriet escapes to Philadelphia, she joins a community of free black people who are dressed in gorgeous outfits. In particular, the fictional Marie Buchanon (played by Janelle Monáe) runs a boarding house for former slaves and has a fantastic wardrobe. In The Hollywood Reporter, Tazewell describes Marie:

“Janelle’s character is a self-made woman. She was born free and never experienced what it was to be a slave. She is well dressed and has a sophistication about her.”

Harriet (2019)

The other character, aside from Marie, who wears spiffy outfits is William Still (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), a historical figure, a free black man, who’s sometimes called “The Father of the Underground Railroad.” Tazewell said in The Hollywood Reporter:

“People were much more worldly than you would imagine, and he was very well dressed. Leslie had no problem pulling the looks off.”

Harriet (2019)

Still wears patterns like this check suit & brightly colored brocade waistcoats.

It’s from Marie in Philadelphia that Harriet gets her own new wardrobe.

Harriet (2019)

Costume photo & Paul Tazewell’s sketch from The Hollywood Reporter.

Harriet (2019)

Marie shows Harriet how to use a gun. Note Marie’s rich purple & gold brocade skirt with black jacket. Also, there’s a portrait of an African-American woman on the wall (maybe it’s supposed to be Marie?).

Tazewell referred to period daguerreotypes and other historical imagery to design these costumes, and even used vintage items in some of the outfits worn by Janelle Monáe. “All of the period detail, I’m very passionate about, and they’re very important elements within my design capabilities,” he said to CR Fashion Book.

One particular photo of Harriet Tubman inspired a costume Tazewell designed for a scene where she’s having a portrait taken. He described it in WWD:

“In this newly found photograph, Harriet is younger. And it was very interesting to compare that to the other photographs that we know of her, that we’ve seen before. Most of those photographs that we’ve known are from when she was more mature, when she was older. They tend to be austere, they seem understandably unhappy and also very modest, usually with a head wrap and dark clothing. In the new photo, she’s wearing a very light checked skirt and a sheer blouse and her hair is uncovered.”

Harriet (2019)

Paul Tazewell adjusts Leslie Odom Jr.’s tie, while Cynthia Erivo sits in front. From Paul Tazewell’s Twitter.

Between 1868 - 1869, Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, between 1868-1869.

Another important outfit is the green gown Harriet wears for her first return to the south. It’s a lovely green dress that Tazewell describes in WWD:

“I made that be a kind of an iridescent green, because I wanted it to be reflective of the nature she was moving through. It had a strength, like spring. There was a new life coming forward.”

Harriet (2019)

This is the only image I could find of the dress, but you can see a little bit of the details.

During later rescue missions, Harriet wears disguises to go undiscovered, which is based in fact. In the film, she even wears men’s clothing, though I have no idea if that is true.

Harriet (2019)

Costume photo & Paul Tazewell’s sketch from The Hollywood Reporter.

Harriet delivers a moving speech to northern abolitionists wearing a beautiful black gown, as she’s in mourning for her sister. This is easily the fanciest outfit in the film.

Harriet (2019)

I lightened this photo to show more of the gown’s details.

The rest of her outfits are rough-and-ready coats that Tazewell describes in many interviews as her ‘superhero’ costumes.

Harriet (2019) Harriet (2019) Harriet (2019)

This leads up to her ‘uniform’ during the Civil War. In Fashionista, Tazewell says these costumes track together to show Harriet’s personal transformation:

“I’ve created an arc with the design that starts from a very humble beginning, obviously, as a slave, but then creates this super human persona — that she becomes a Superwoman.”

Harriet (2019)

While this isn’t a froofy frock flick, the historical look and feel is solid and grounds the story. I agree with director Kasi Lemmons who said in The Hollywood Reporter of Paul Tazewell’s work:

“When I saw the finished [results], it was both what we had discussed and what he had sketched, but with such texture, color, and attention to detail that I was blown away. His work was critical to the look and authenticity of the film.”


Have you seen Harriet yet?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

25 Responses

  1. Katie

    This! This is how you use period detail to help tell the story. This is proof that accurate to the period costume is not full or “unrelatable”.

  2. karenbs333

    I was super-impressed by the clothing in this movie (I hesitate to call them “costumes” they are so real). The plot was solid enough to warrant them, modified but not “movie-fied”. I can’t get over how much the actress looks like that photo of the younger Tubman. If this film doesn’t win the Oscar for at least the costume designer I will be very disappointed.

  3. Saraquill

    What I want to know most is, did they integrate her brain damage into the movie, or did they ablewash her?

    • Melissa

      She has “sleeping spells” and visions (the movie’s way of showing her belief that God spoke directly to her. She tells the story of how she got her injury and William Still writes “possible brain damage” in his notes.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I didn’t include it here, but director Kasi Lemmons has mentioned in interviews how she interpreted Tubman’s brain damage on screen. It’s elegantly done, IMO, & relates to Tubman’s deep faith, which is well documented.

    • Nzie

      They also have Still taking down her story hear her say she has spells/visions following her injury, and he writes down “possible brain damage.” I felt they handled it pretty well.

  4. Brandy Loutherback

    This movie looks good (Unlike some movies set in the 1860’s I could mention!) Thought the 1860’s isn’t my favorite era (Derpy Bonnets).

    • Lee Jones

      Most of the film is set between 1849 and 1850. The rest of the film is set in 1858 and the coda is 1863.

  5. Nzie

    Totally agree with your review. The costumes clearly had a lot of thoughtfulness and attention to detail, and overall it was a good film about a great woman.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      No. There is little to no overt violence shown in the film — the director didn’t want to make ‘slavery porn’ as she said in interviews. The horrors of slavery are discussed & shown by consequence, but it’s not gruesome like ’12 Years a Slave’ & other films.

      • Maggie May

        Perhaps they don’t feel it necessary to emphasize the horror of slavery in a graphic way. Thus making the film useful in the classroom.

        Certainly a worthy topic, but the look makes me want to see it on the big screen. Plus Leslie Odom Jr…

        • Jacqueline

          It’s terrible to be played in a classroom because it is revisionist history. Their was never any records of black bounty hunters. Black people didn’t have that sort of agency back then. For the main villian in the movie to be a black man named Bigger Long is highly disrespectful to black Americans. The movie was aweful and shameful to the memory of Harriet Tubman #notmyharriet

          • Trystan L. Bass

            If you’ve seen the movie, you’d know that the black slave catcher is NOT the main villain at all — the white owner is. Read the link I noted above for historical analysis about both characters, which, as I said, are both fictionalized. The character you obsess over, Bigger Long, is in a mere handful of scenes & does not interact with Harriet Tubman. He is a minor character.

            Compare with her white former owner who repeatedly yells at her, comparing her to a pig throughout the film, until the final scene when (spoiler), she has the chance to kill him. All of that is fictional, true, but it contributes to her powerful redemption arc, & I think it’s fairly indicative of the abuses she endured without showing bloody brutality, which was the director’s intent.

      • Lee Jones

        I hate that phrase “slavery porn”. To me, it’s a sign that someone doesn’t want to face the realities of American slavery and what many captives had to endure. Is that the director’s problem?

        • spanielpatter14

          I wouldn’t call it “slavery porn” because that phrase, to me, cheapens the horror of the institution of slavery. But I can understand not wanting to see graphic violence and pain dramatized in movies/TV. I’ve watched Roots and its sequels (the original and the more recent remake); but I can’t sit down and watch more people whipped or beaten or killed because of slavery, i.e. 12 Years A Slave. (I can’t watch “Schindler’s List” again either, which has nothing to do with American slavery). There is only so much brutality I can endure to watch on TV or in movies, whether or not it is fact-based. That doesn’t mean I condone slavery, or the Holocaust; or that I haven’t read about them and other horrible exercises in inhumanity in books…

          • Lynn

            Actually, Cheney McKnight of Not Your Mother’s History and Abby Cox, formerly of American Duchess, just had a hard and beautiful discussion about having a wedding on a plantation in which Abby rightly compared it to having a wedding in the commandant’s house of a concentration camp. I had never looked at it that way – that some of these beautiful Southern mansions are no better than Mauthausen. It was certainly disquieting, and a painful way for me to check my white Southern privilege.

  6. M.E. Lawrence

    I liked “Harriet” more than I was expecting to. (Meaning I really wanted it to be good, not just to have my tears jerked.) Took me a while to recognize Erivo as the bad-ass hairdresser from “Widows. She was very fine as Tubman. I also don’t remember one scene in which I thought the costumes stood out too much; they were worn by the characters, instead of the other way around, and the superhero look added to the exhilaration of Tubman’s later exploits. Lastly, what did anyone think of the hair styling? I admired it, but am no expert in these matters.

  7. Barb D

    I was very much on the fence about this movie, mostly due to the reviews. I think I will go see it this weekend now.

  8. Jenno

    Saw the movie last night–it’s a fine piece of cinema. Toward the beginning when she is with her first husband, I noticed the patching on his coat…it was a thoughtful detail of patches over patches along the shoulders where the weight of the fabric would have pulled at the seams.

  9. spanielpatter14

    Minor out-of-period detail that did not bother me too much: The long-haired dog used by the character Bigger Long in one of his few scenes should not be there. Unlike the Bloodhounds and possibly other scenthounds who were used by the white slave hunters, Long’s dog was played by what seems to be either a long-haired German Shepherd or a Shiloh or King Shepherd (the latter two breeds being modern German Shepherd mixes/relations). The first German Shepherd would not appear until 1899. (being an amateur dog expert, I notice such things)

    I loved this movie; Harriet Tubman has always been one of my heroes. I was very pleased that they did not omit Harriet’s religious beliefs; regardless of its origin, her faith (including the visions) gave her strength and inspiration through very bad and dangerous times. I’m also glad the movie did not endeavor to preach that faith to the audience; I thought that the movie was putting the visions and inspiration in it to show Harriet’s motivations, and then left it up to the audience to make of them what we wanted to.