Although it's weighed down by its hackneyed biopic framework, Harriet has a spirit and heart befitting of its daring namesake and her legacy.
Harriet Tubman's long overdue Hollywood biography has arrived, and it both is and isn't the film you're expecting. On one level, Harriet is exactly the type of respectful, yet formulaic testament to the incredible life of a historical figure that comes out every awards season and earns polite applause, but is mostly forgotten thereafter. But in the hands of writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, The Caveman's Valentine), the movie also plays out like a superhero origin story for Tubman, right down to her having super-abilities (more on that later). Heck, there's even an exchange where Tubman chooses her non-slave name as though she's a newbie costumed crime-fighter selecting her vigilante moniker. Though it's weighed down by its hackneyed biopic framework, Harriet has a spirit and heart befitting of its daring namesake and her legacy.
The film begins in Maryland circa 1849, as Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) - then still a slave born Araminta Ross - tries to escape to Philadelphia, leaving her family behind. Guided by her inner strength and the premonitions she's had since suffering a head injury in her youth, but believes are messages from God, Tubman miraculously makes it to freedom, 100 miles away. Soon after, she seeks help from the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and well to do proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) in returning to Maryland and rescuing her loved ones. In doing so, Tubman goes on to become a member of the Underground Railroad and a legendary freedom fighter in her own right.
Harriet isn't the first memoir in recent memory to portray its subject like a real-life superhero (Reginald Hudlin's Marshall not only did that two years ago, it even cast T'Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman), but it goes further with that approach than other films have before it. Lemmons strives to deliver a stirring biodrama by way of historical adventure, serving up action-driven sequences with scenes that chart Tubman's evolution from inexperienced runaway slave to confident, gun-toting warrior. Combined with the stylized moments in which Tubman has her "spells", this is an effective way of making an otherwise cut and dry biographical feature more entertaining. At the same time, Lemmons never loses sight of the pain inflicted by slavery and often pauses the story to reflect on the trauma that freed slaves still carry with them. Harriet is similarly sensitive in its portrayal of those slaves who (for good reason) are too afraid to follow Tubman in her crusade and even calls out those who would judge them.
But in spite of Lemmons' heartfelt and spiritual direction, Harriet is restricted by its routine biopic storyline. The script by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) spans several years in Tubman's life, from her time freeing other slaves as the soldier plantation owners call "Moses" (see again, the superhero parallels) to her battle against the Fugitive Slave Act and run commanding troops in the Civil War. As fascinating as these events and the people involved are, though, Harriet hurries on through them like it's checking items off a grocery list. Tubman's relationships suffer the most for it, from her found sisterhood with Marie and friendship with William to her affections for her parents (Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway), and personal war with Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), her former slave owner, who's been obsessed with her since they grew up as children. And with so much ground to cover, the film simply can't spend much time dwelling on the important topics it broaches, like social privilege and the role the law played in upholding the institution of slavery.
Unsurprisingly, Harriet is elevated by its talented cast and especially Erivo, who delivers yet another spirited performance (one fueled by passion and righteous fury) following her equally great work in last year's Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. It also helps that Lemmons finds ways of painting the morality of the film's setting in shades of grey by including characters like the scheming black slave trackers Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) and Walter (Henry Hunter Hall) into the mix - though again, one wishes the movie devoted more effort to fleshing them out. And of course, Harriet is a beautiful sight to behold on the big screen, where the richly earthy tones of John Toll's cinematography are done proper justice. Together with Terence Blanchard's rapturous score (not to mention, a perfect needle drop of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman"), these elements breathe life into the film, even as it settles into the rhythm of a paint by numbers memoir.
Attempting to cover the vastness of Tubman's amazing real life was always going to be a challenge for a movie, and the task might've been better left to a TV miniseries instead. Harriet makes a proper go at it all the same and there's something inspired about the way it draws from superhero tropes to make its story more accessible to a mainstream audience. In the end, however, the film is a fairly standard awards season offering and probably won't have much luck appealing to those outside of the crowd that usually turns up for biographies of this kind. Still, it's not like the actual Tubman needed Hollywood to confirm she was a real-life badass anyway.
Harriet is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 125 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.
- Harriet (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019