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Film Review: Harriet Gets Lost in the Myth of Its Hero

on October 28, 2019, 2:01pm

The Pitch: Long before she became one of the most pivotal figures in American history, Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) was “Minty” Ross, a slave on a Maryland plantation alongside her extended family, who are always one bad day away from being sold and separated. Eventually escaping the plantation on her own, Minty flees to Philadelphia, where she’s taken in by abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and business owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), who help her acclimate to freedom and take a new name. But no sooner is the newly-minted Harriet settled into her new life as a free woman before she feels the pull to sneak back to her old plantation and free her family as well — setting off a chain of events that will forge her into one of the most iconic conductors on the Underground Railroad.

When Life Gives You Lemmons: From the outside, Kasi Lemmons feels like an exciting choice to bring Harriet Tubman’s story to cinematic life; her incredible 2004 debut Eve’s Bayou is the kind of intricate Southern Gothic story that would seemingly work well within the structure of Tubman’s life. Unfortunately, what results from Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (who gets story credit) is a fairly bog-standard biopic formula that doesn’t elevate itself beyond the kind of feel-good antiracist prestige pictures we got in the ’90s.

Harriet (Focus Features)

Harriet (Focus Features)

#GirlBoss: Elevating the proceedings, however, is Erivo herself as Harriet Tubman, doing her best to liven up a picture that tends to rush its central figure through certain plot beats in the real woman’s life. Erivo is all plaintive stoicism, wounded eyes and angelic voice, at once comfortable with and intermittently confused by her quickly-rising mythic status. Erivo has a Tony for her lead turn in The Color Purple, so this kind of territory is certainly familiar to her; she captures the steely determination and unflinching courage Lemmons’ treatment of Harriet asks of her.

There are moments in the later acts of Harriet, as Tubman’s star rises and her reputation takes hold as the mysterious ‘slave-stealer’ Moses, where Erivo wrestles with the myth that’s been built up around her. But since most of the rest of the characters feel like ciphers — mere stepping stones on our road to understanding Harriet — it comes across as didactic rather than revealing.

Harriet (Focus Features)

Harriet (Focus Features)

We’re On a Mission From God: In some ways, Harriet feels rather cynically like the Marvelization of Harriet Tubman, Lemmons’ film adopting the structure of nothing less than a superhero origin story. We see Harriet first as the meek, downtrodden woman in bondage, unaware of her true powers; then, as she escapes and finds her new identity, she grows into her role as a selfless protector, even eventually dealing with a sniveling villain related to her past (Joe Alwyn, all one-dimensional sneer as her former masters’ son). She even gets something of a superhero costume in the form of her blood-red frock coat and five-gallon hat, something eminently impractical for traversing treacherous slave territory in secret but which makes for a striking image.

Not only that, Harriet Tubman gets her very own superpower — visions of God that tell the future in frantic, black-and-white flashes of things to come. The purpose seems to be to grant Harriet a sense of divine purpose, a way to make her seem larger than life. Granted, this is at least loosely taken from the real Tubman getting visions from a childhood head injury, which she then interpreted as divine premonitions. But by literalizing this device to this degree, Harriet becomes inherently less interesting. Rather than giving her the agency to make decisions on her own, she’s led by the collar by the Almighty. In one pivotal moment, she effectively walks on water to bring a group of slaves to freedom. It’s a moment so impressive one slave hunter (an underused Henry Hunter Hall) gives up and starts working for her.

The Verdict: Harriet Tubman is a figure worth celebrating — come on, America, let’s get her on the $20 bill already — but Harriet feels like the wrong way to do it. It’s handsomely made, and Erivo carries the film on her shoulders, but its movements are too clumsy to give Tubman the actualization she deserves. It feels like the kind of well-meaning prestige picture that high school history teachers will throw on one afternoon during a slow period; easy to digest, but not interesting or complicated enough to engage with.

Where’s It Playing? Harriet sneaks through Confederate territory and emancipates theaters November 1.

Trailer:

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