Before this year, the only major theatrical movie to feature Harriet Tubman was 2012’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Though a solid action/horror tale in its own right, even the filmmakers behind that project would admit it’s ludicrous that high-concept exercise in fiction is the only cinematic representation for such an important historical figure. Such a massive oversight has been combated by the release of “Harriet,” a new feature film hailing from writer/director Kasi Lemmons.
“Harriet” begins with Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) going under the name of Minty under the ownership of a vicious slave owning family, which includes her childhood friend Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), in Maryland. Realizing there’s no hope for freedom under the Brodess family, Minty takes matters into her own hands and runs off on her own, leaving behind her family and a lover in the process. Traveling across extensive amounts of land, Minty makes it to Pennsylvania where she’s able to live as a free woman under her own name: Harriet Tubman. From here, Harriet follows its titular protagonist as she goes from being a runaway slave who can’t read or write to becoming a Moses-esque figure in how she leads slaves to freedom.
“Harriet” is the type of movie you leave wishing you liked more than you did. What we get here is a serviceable historical biopic that will do just fine for being viewed in high school history classes but never feels like the kind of high-quality cinema that a figure like Harriet Tubman deserves. The biggest issue here is one that plagues many biopics, writers Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons are far too concerned with cramming as many historical events as possible into a two-hour runtime rather than exploring the characters in an insightful fashion. No matter how many noteworthy occurrences in Harriet Tubman’s life you put into your story, it’s not gonna matter much if I don’t care about the people engaging in those events.
Supporting figures in Tubman’s life, chiefly William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), have very little in the way of a concrete personality despite being played by such charismatic performers. Even the character of Harriet Tubman suffers on a writing-level since her character arc of going from a runaway slave to a mythic figure is wrapped up by the second-act. A choice to have Tubman experience visions of the future like she’s a mutant in the “X-Men” or Nicolas Cage in “Next” is also a peculiar decision. There’s certainly room for a more stylized interpretation of Tubman and who she was a person, but Harriet interrupting a grounded drama for scenes straight out of “Minority Report” is a curious decision that doesn’t work in execution here.
Such an element of Tubman’s character ties into how “Harriet” struggles to balance its more realistic tendencies with more melodramatic and grandiose tendencies. Any dialogue emerging from a villainous slave-tracker played by Omar Dorsey, for instance, feels like it comes out of a whole other movie. Sometimes this dissonance comes not from the script, but from clumsy pieces of editing, such as in a moment where Harriet Tubman abruptly pulls out a gun on her family to intimidate them to cross a river or a cut from an unconscious Tubman to her blindfolded father, the latter of which got unintentional laughter out of the audience at my screening. “Harriet” doesn’t really have any all-time worst qualities to its name, but it does miss the mark in a number of key ways that begin to add up after a while.
Luckily, there are good elements to be found here. The direction of Kasi Lemmons and the cinematography by John Toll is usually pretty solid and it’s especially good in using varying colors to visually differentiate between environments happening in the South and the North. The shot of Harriet Tubman crossing over the border into Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the first time is especially gorgeous in its use of vibrant oranges to signal the paradise Tubman has managed to get to. Meanwhile, her home of Maryland is usually awash in darker hues signaling the gruesomeness of the area. Lemmons uses these colors with a careful eye while the actors do uniformly fine work under her direction, particularly Cynthia Erivo’s standout lead performance.
Whereas Harriet’s script struggles with bringing distinct personalities and humanity to the characters inhabiting its story, Erivo effortlessly imbues Tubman with such qualities. While choosing to cram so much of Harriet Tubman’s life into one movie doesn’t really work out for the story of “Harriet,” it does allow Erivo the chance to shine in portraying how Tubman grows and changes over the years. Every step of the way, Erivo lends her character a layer of believablity that makes her performance of runaway slave Harriet Tubman just as convincing as the third-act version of Harriet Tubman that’s going on solo missions to rescue her family from slavery. “Harriet” certainly isn’t as good as it could be thanks to it falling prey to the flaws that grip many biopics, but at least Cynthia Erivo delivers her A-game in her lead performance as Harriet Tubman. Her turn in this role is certainly a better cinematic legacy for this figure than “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.