Film Review: “Harriet” Is a Mess, but Erivo is Riveting

Film poster: “Harriet”

Harriet (Kasi Lemmons, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

I so desperately wanted to like this movie that it took me until about halfway through to realize that hope and faith will only get you so far; ultimately, it’s the work that matters. Which is exactly where my problems with Harriet begin … As urgent a biopic as ever (in today’s world of rising racism, especially), the film purports to tell the life and deeds of the resilient, brave and brilliant abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), yet ends up mired in a cinematic religiosity that obscures the very real, human achievements of its subject. Couple that with an intrusive musical score that telegraphs every single emotional beat ad nauseum, and the movie is a narrative bust. Its saving grace is the mesmerizing central performance from actress Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), who carries the story forward as best she can, even while burdened by a screenplay that drags her down with every step.

We start in 1849 with Harriet not yet Harriet; a slave in Maryland, she is Minty (short for Araminta), married to a free man who lives near her plantation. When the master dies, his dissolute son Gideon (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) – who grew up side by side with Minty – threatens to sell her away to make ends meet, so she decides to run. Helped by her (also free) father (Clarke Peters, Division 19), she makes it close to the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, but by then is pursued closely by Gideon, his men and his dogs. Thanks to an act of great physical daring – a leap of faith, if you will, off a bridge – and a vision from on high (a recurring phenomenon), she escapes, making her way to Philadelphia. There, she finds help in the form of abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) and the organization he runs for escapees. He puts her up in a boarding house run by (the fictional) Marie Buchanon (singer Janelle Monae), where she adjust to a new life, free but cut off from those she loves.

Cynthia Erivo in HARRIET ©Focus Features

Skip to a few years later, and Minty – now with a new name chosen by her – is determined to go back and help family and friends make the same journey as did she. Against the advice of Still and others, she goes, and succeeds, eventually earning the respect of the secretive Underground Railroad network, into which she is eventually officially inducted. Through a series of montages, we see her outwit, time and again, those southern slave owners – including Gideon – who raise the price on her head with each venture. Prone to fainting spells as God talks to her, Harriet always rises with a newfound assurance of the right path to take. She is the chosen one, leading her people to freedom.

That’s all to the good, but what the film unforgivably minimizes is the real-life, non-divine intelligence and inspiration that must have served Ms. Tubman well, time and again. Through ellipsis, obfuscation and an unfortunate emphasis on the supernatural, director Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity) ignores the true message of Tubman’s life, that oppressive systems of bondage can be overcome when people band together and work towards a common goal. In addition, Lemmons structures the script to lead to the inevitable confrontation between Harriet and Gideon, as if the entire ignominious history of slavery in America boils down to a conflict between these two childhood friends. Finally, the director throws in an ending coda of Tubman commanding a unit during the Civil War (now that’s a movie I would have loved to see) and then reminds us that she lived until 1913. What a life, and too bad that we see so little of it. As messy as Harriet is, however, Erivo makes much of it at least watchable. May she find a future project worthy of her talent.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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