Harriet is the first feature film to be made about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. It’s unfortunate that such a fascinating story has taken so long to be turned into a movie. The final product is mostly worth the wait but formulaic. I suspect there will be more Harriet Tubman films to come eventually and some will probably be more detail oriented and in-depth. This biographical drama is structured as a crowd-pleaser; an understandable decision but one that can’t help but feel surface level in its examination. That said, it’s still a very good crowd-pleaser, and in a weekend that welcomes several human and cyborg protagonists to the box office, this is the hero you should go see on the big screen.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the narrative traces a period of Harriet’s life that begins with her escape from slavery and concludes with her participation in the Civil War. Lemmons has called Tubman a real life superhero, and that’s the approach the film takes. It’s a story crafted in a manner that’s aware of the box office competition, and the focus is on action and suspense. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tubman’s escape and subsequent work with the Underground Railroad are filled with details that seem stunning and improbable, but are true. That said, the script relies a bit too much on divine intervention as an explanation.
Tubman herself often credited God with her ability avoid re-capture. Yet as the previously linked to USA Today article states, there may have been another reason for her frequent visions, and the film only briefly mentions this and then moves on. There is a lot of possibility for some great character examination that the script misses because it’s too eager to get to the next escape or fit in the next big historical development. I also think that if the filmmakers wanted to explore her faith, they should have gone farther. As presented here, it really is just a superpower or armor, if you will, that instead should be a complex and compelling layer to this character.
One final related complaint is that her visions, which the film shows her having very often, get repetitive. With one memorable exception, nearly every one of these visions features flashes of the same handful of future events. They are shown to us a lot and after a while they begin taking up screen time that could have been used in more insightful ways. They continue to be used long after the audience gets the point. It’s a visual cliche that the film could do without.
I promise now I am done with the griping, because aside from the issues stated above I was really impressed by this portrayal. Cynthia Erivo has been getting positive reviews and even some Oscar buzz, and it’s deserved. Erivo is amazing, and though I said above that there may be better written Harriet Tubman films in the future, I think it’s safe to say that Erivo has set a standard here. Everyone who comes later will be compared to her and not just because she’s the first, but because it will be hard to top this performance.
In terms of the other actors, I really liked Janelle Monae as a fictional character that Harriet meets in Philadelphia and also Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Samuel Green. Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard do condense a lot of Tubman’s story into composite characters, which may keep the film from being completely accurate but helps streamline the plot a bit. Joe Alwyn is also fine as the film’s villain. Again, going with the superhero-esque style that Lemmons adopts, Alwyn’s character is just a baddie through and through. There’s very little nuance to him, but the dynamic between him and Erivo works.
Harriet also succeeds technically. The costume design and cinematography in particular are very effective. I also appreciated Terence Blanchard’s score. I’m know I’m late to this discovery, but he is becoming one of my favorite film composers.
Though the narrative does cover a lot of ground, the plot never feels bloated. There’s definitely a through line that focuses on Tubman helping the rest of her family escape slavery, and there are some subplots here and there, but I never felt like the script was trying to cover too much. Harriet is first and foremost an important and engaging history lessons. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.