With this history of America’s racial divide being more prevalent in cinema year in and year out it’s actually kind of surprising that it took until 2019 for us to get a movie about Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist who became known as “Moses” for her numerous successful attempts to free slaves as an agent of the Underground Railroad. Starring Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet” showcases Tubman’s escape from slavery and subsequent evolution into one of the most famous figures in American history. Now more than ever it seems fitting, if overdue, that this legendary woman gets her own big screen feature, but does it do justice to her legacy? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Harriet”.
In a lot of ways “Harriet” feels like a typical late-year Oscar bait movie, but thankfully it offers plenty to appreciate as it chronicles the life of the legendary Tubman. “Harriet” takes a few liberties in its telling of the heroine’s story, but for the most part many of the storylines and aspects of her life are apparently pretty accurate to real history. Her “visions” from God that helped guide her, the fate of her relationship with her husband John Tubman, plantation owners being the originators of her Moses nickname and her use of guns, specifically a pistol, are all based on historic fact and Harriet’s own recorded real-life accounts. Even when I was growing up learning about her, Tubman has long been taught and portrayed as a more feminine and proper individual but in this film, led by a fully committed Cynthia Erivo in the title role and a female director Kasi Lemmons who helped write the screenplay, Harriet is not always so prim and proper. She’s actually presented as quite the badass whose narrative is told very similarly to a superhero origin story with Tubman starting out as a less confident every-woman and eventually taking steps to become the legend she was destined to be. We see her as a spectacular woman devoted to her convictions and her “live free or die” mentality unafraid to take chances, get her hands dirty and even threaten her own fellow slaves for their decision to reject freedom out of fear. Seeing this side of Harriet helps drive home the determination and dedication it took for her to accomplish her goals effectively transforming her from the simple icon we all know into the badass freedom fighter she really was.
As with any biopic it’s the liberties taken that feel much less interesting than the actual truth. “Harriet” contains a villain character by the name of Gideon Brodess, played by Joe Alwyn, who never actually existed in real life and is instead meant to represent the children of the slave era of America who grew up beside slaves and inherited their parent’s oppressive natures. In real life Harriet fled to freedom after her master died and she was slated to be sold, but in this film it’s Brodess who is threatening to sell her setting him up as her primary foe as she joins the Underground Railroad. In this sense Brodess is as much the supervillain of this story as Harriet is the superhero but like many supervillains he’s much less interesting, more formulaic and cliché even despite his more humanizing qualities. Another character, Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon, while well played is also fiction who personifies many different similar individuals that played a role in Harriet’s learning how to be “proper” and free, acting as the mento to Harriet in a way. Like many forgettable mentors she’s merely a footnote in Harriet’s story and FEELS like such, a character meant to be in place to further offer Harriet motivation. While it’s not the fault of the performers, characters are much less defined or memorable than the interpretations of the many real-life legends that Harriet associated with that are also presented in the film.
With that said though adding extra characters is pretty basic stuff when it comes to biopics. You can almost always expect it in order to help the story flow. But there’s part of the problem. There’s just something rather…wooden about how “Harriet” plays out. The story itself feels like an unfortunate slog at times stopping in its tracks at one moment and rushing forward the next creating a pacing problem that can make it hard to appreciate everything we’re being shown about Tubman’s countless accomplishments. The first half of the film for me was the toughest to get through but once the second hour kicked in and we got to see the more determined and heroic Tubman I’ll admit things got more interesting and engaging even if they remained formulaic. The film feels content embracing the same by-the-numbers approach to storytelling many biopics utilize to pander to a more mainstream audience and, as a result, some of the depth and more fascinating elements of Harriet Tubman’s story and character feel underutilized or watered down. The writing and editing prevent “Harriet” from being a whole lot more than an above average biographical picture in terms of overall quality, but there are many elements that prevent it from being a worse film as well.
“Harriet” is still an unapologetic look at the brutality of a darker time in America’s history when a race of men and women were seen as property and below the white race. This film could have easily taken things a step too far and completely demonized white Americans of past and present in its own way, but it doesn’t. Sure, the southern plantation owners are still the bad people but we also see a few black men betray their own race for a profit and the narrative does indicate that the idea of slavery was an ingrained cultural element to the south that could be changed but was more inconvenient to abolish rather than being driven simply by hate and distaste. It doesn’t forgive or justify white slave owners, but it does dare to insinuate that the slave issue was a much bigger and more complicated problem than simple selfishness and greed and that people like Harriet were essential to opening the eyes of a nation to the need for a change in perspective, an idea that resonates just as much today as it probably did back in Harriet’s time. It should be noted that the score, cinematography and acting all help offer something worth experiencing even if the screenplay keeps Tubman’s story pretty limited to genre conventions. In that sense “Harriet” is the absolute definition of being more than the sum of its parts because while it has many flaws there are enough good pieces to the final product to make the end result worth your time.
“Harriet” feels like a film that could have been so much more, but what we got was more than enough to make it a watchable if at times frustratingly predictable examination of Tubman’s legacy. It might actually say something that a movie about one of America’s most notable abolitionists and historic black figures is less interesting than many modern takes on the racial divide that permeates the history of the United States, but even at its worst “Harriet” still has plenty to say and numerous redeemable elements from its attention to historical details to its performances and visual style to overpower its off-paced and uninventive approach to storytelling. It might not be Oscar worthy but it’s at least a decent at worst representation of Tubman and does enough to satisfy as a long-overdue cinematic tribute to one of the most iconic women in American history.