Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Jennifer Nettles, Joe Alwyn, Tim Guinee, Deborah Ayorinde, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Tory Kittles, Omar J. Dorsey, Zackary Momoh, Mike Marunde, and Claire Bronson.
The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
Harriet somehow takes every one of the iconic figure’s legendary achievements the film touches on and rolls them out at such breakneck speed that none of them register as engaging, courageous and perilous acts of survival and heroism. Fearing to be sold to another plantation and having her family further split apart, Araminta “Minty” Ross decides to flee the Maryland-based plantation for a free life up north in Philadelphia (a dangerous trek supposedly impossible for someone with next to no travel experience to make alone). Obviously, the journey is successfully made, but moments later when another character is in shock, the audience is not there with him. We see roughly two minutes covering a vast distance, coming away feeling like brushing up on the Wikipedia entry would have elicited the same reaction. There is no struggle or sense of accomplishment, just victory after victory, which gets tiresome real fast even if someone as remarkable as Harriet Tubman doesn’t face obstacles.
It doesn’t help that the first 30 minutes of Harriet frustratingly just see her going from character to character awaiting further instructions on what to do next, and are sloppily edited together at that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the initial cut of the film was around three hours long with much of the first act chopped down to size so that the narrative can rightfully and timely get into Araminta’s transformation into Harriet Tubman. Still, there came a point where if one more character gave her a picture of another person to go talk to, I would have gone slightly insane.
Nevertheless, Araminta takes on the free name of Harriet Tubman, finds work, and adjusts to a new life, but after one year decides, out of loneliness, she must return back to Maryland and bring her husband back with her. You don’t even need to have ever opened a history textbook to know that something else happened entirely; Harriet Tubman began smuggling slaves (relatives included) all the way north with the assistance of other abolitionists (most notably William Still, here played by Leslie Odom Jr.) and the underground railroad.
None of this registers either, but there is one section that is a strong cut above the rest of the lackluster experience. Cynthia Erivo does not have much to work with (the three credited writers, of which director Kasi Lemmons is one of them, seem to have used the first four paragraphs of Wikipedia and grade school history books as all they need to get inside her mindset) as Harriet Tubman, although her gradual shift from shy and nervous to determined and fiery leader is on-point. Initially, the slaves are unsure of whether to trust her (the film does lean into Harriet’s brain damage that, to her, gifted her with visions from God on what to do, which is both awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and doesn’t really instill confidence into them), until Harriet takes charge with a strong voice and wisdom. Additionally, the film tries to make an intriguing juxtaposition of the slaves that choose to run and create better lives for themselves versus those that would rather bear the suffering and torture to remain connected to their loved ones. However, like just about everything else in Harriet, this aspect is not explored deep enough.
Naturally, all of this slave rescuing doesn’t look good for Gideon (Joe Alwyn), Harriet’s former plantation runner who is slowly losing everything. The problem is that much of the dialogue from these owners is cartoonish, which might sound crazy considering who these people were and what they stood for, but bad dialogue is bad dialogue. Worse, Harriet and Gideon essentially become bitter rivals as the movie builds to a somewhat action-packed climax that feels entirely out of tune for a film about Harriet Tubman. Yes, she was a fighter (another characteristic that is handed to her in the span of two minutes without making the audience feel as if it was earned) and did go on to become one of the only woman to lead troops into battle, but such an element of her persona could have been incorporated better into the narrative. Then again, this is also a biopic that thinks anachronistic needle drops are a good idea.
Still, there is nothing more miscalculated than watching Harriet chalk up her many accomplishments as due to a literal connection with God. The filmmakers come dangerously close to making her appear slightly mental at times. Religious subtext is fine, but there needs to be subtlety and delicacy within its handling. Truthfully, nothing seems to have been crafted with care here outside of Cynthia Erivo competently filling some mighty historical shoes. Harriet just goes through the motions; it makes all of her sacrifices and bravery look boring and uneventful.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com