Directed by: Kasi Lemmons. Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn. Runtime: 2h 5 min. Released: November 1, 2019.
Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), who escapes slavery and becomes an American hero, freeing slaves and changing history. One thing the film gets right is in the depiction of Harriet as an American hero, an important figure who inspired and is integral to America’s history. That is felt throughout the film. However, she deserves so much better.
The best part of the film is easily Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Tubman. Her brief singing scenes are lovely and there’s power in her performance, especially in the first hour of the film as she walks 100 miles to freedom to Philadelphia. Tubman freeing herself is the most compelling part of the film; but what she does after is more important, starting with arriving in Philadelphia and meeting William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who gives Harriet her freedom. Harriet then stays with Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe). When Harriet arrives, Marie (kindly) suggests Harriet take a bath because she’s “stinking like a barnyard animal.” This is one of the film’s better moments as Harriet uses it as a teaching moment, as Marie was born free. “I guess you never had the stink of fear, of running for your life.”
This is one of the only memorable lines about slavery that holds power. It’s a glossy, action movie look at slavery that, had I not seen the Universal logo before the film, I’d have assumed this was a Disney depiction of it. That’s how safe the screenplay, written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons who does a solid job directing, feels at times. It feels Disney in every way except for its use of racial slurs. I don’t think Tubman deserves a by-the-numbers biopic like this. Erivo’s performance makes the character transcend the generic screenplay, as she makes it worth the watch, and as a film that teaches about Harriet Tubman, it does its job.
I didn’t know much about Tubman before this – I think the most I knew about her was that she was part of the Underground Railroad because of that Black History Month episode of That’s So Raven. Speaking of a show where the main character has visions, Harriet Tubman had visions where she’d zone out (or even have fits of narcolepsy) where she’d receive messages from God of what the proper path was. I wish I had known this about Tubman before watching because it distracted at times, as some aspects of it felt a bit unbelievable in a biopic. Still, it seems like an accurate portrayal so I couldn’t really knock that.
The villains of the film are where this is so weak for me. They just feel like very safe caricatures that are easy to hate, including the main one Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who grew up with Harriet but becomes the master of the plantation when his father dies. By the way, Gideon wants to sell Harriet which puts the film into motion because Harriet prays for Gideon’s father’s death and that night he dies. He’s such a goofy caricature of racism, and it’s more annoying to learn he’s a fictional character because he’s just awful.
The film then introduces slave catchers with Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) and the big bad named Abraham (Willie Raysor). Gideon hires them to bring Harriet back when she’s spotted on her first trip back to the plantation trying to bring people back to Philadelphia.
The scenes where Harriet tries to bring people back to Philadelphia to freedom has some thrills. For my enjoyment, though, this started to fall apart for me when Harriet is inducted into the Underground Railroad to free the slaves in an official capacity. Besides Harriet’s own walk to freedom, this is the most interesting part of her as a person but it feels dumbed down into an action movie. Right after she’s inducted it goes into a montage of her freeing slaves (“the bravest conductors steal slaves directly from the plantation right under the overseer’s nose,” explains William Still) to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” This is a fun scene because of the song – it’s such a banger and I loved hearing it in another film other than Cellular – but I would have liked more about the Railroad than just that when it’s such an integral part to her history.
I legitimately liked the first hour but tonally it feels different after “Sinnerman” plays. It inserts a last bit of energy into the film before it just becomes too goofy for the rest of it. The story still seems accurate to Harriet, but the dialogue just feels so rough, where Harriet has a vision of someone’s death and then someone narrates in a letter that they’ve “gone to meet that good friend of the slave, the Angel of Death.” I won’t rant about this line, but Walter says that “we’re gonna need a bigger cart” when there are too many slaves and they don’t have a big enough cart. A character can’t say that without it being a reference to Jaws, and the fact that this line is in a serious film about Harriet Tubman 100-plus years before Spielberg’s Jaws is something I very much dislike. Sure, it’s a harmless line, but when the first half of the film feels like a serious, but filtered, depiction of slavery and then it starts to feel more like an action movie and there’s a line like this, it starts to feel like the film just gives up and that’s disappointing.