Harriet: Extraordinary Woman, Ordinary Biopic
Let’s get this out of the way first. It’s astounding that it took over a century of cinema for a feature film about Harriet Tubman to make its way to the silver screen. On paper, her life and accomplishments seem made for the movies--an enslaved woman who escaped bondage and used her newfound freedom to become a vocal abolitionist, one of the most successful liberators on the Underground Railroad, a spy and battle leader for the Union army, and champion for women’s suffrage. With all that buildup, it’s perhaps not a surprise that Harriet doesn’t quite rise to meet the caliber of its subject. In the end, Harriet is an admirable attempt at an impossible task: condensing the remarkable life of one of the greatest heroes in American history into one film.
Regrettably, the scope of Tubman’s extraordinary life is ultimately too much for the movie to bear, and the filmmakers’ very clear desire to communicate the importance of her story undermines the movie’s narrative. The screenplay, cowritten by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) is so jam-packed that it never takes the time to get to know its characters. The talented cast is never given more than a few notes to play, but they manage to add some texture to what are largely one-dimensional characters. That extends to the immensely talented Cynthia Erivo (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale) as Harriet, who isn’t asked to do much more than appear noble, devout, and determined (which, to be fair, she does quite well). We buy Harriet as a resolute hero, but the movie depicts her as a Historic Icon, rather than as a person, and that’s a shame. In fact, the movie seems almost more concerned with educating its audience and lionizing its subject than delivering a compelling narrative. It’s a noble objective, but it unfortunately leads to an exposition-heavy and somewhat didactic viewing experience. I don’t want to sound unnecessarily harsh. Lemmons is clearly a talented filmmaker, and Harriet is a well-crafted and often moving film. She imbues the Underground Railroad escape scenes with tension, and her depiction of the toll of both slavery and the struggle to escape from it always foregrounds the experiences of black people--especially women--in a way that feels fresh and avoids the feeling of exploitation common to films about slavery. The costumes by Paul Tazewell (Broadway’s Hamilton) are wonderfully textured and period-specific, and Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman) delivers a gorgeous and epic score, sweeping and beautifully textured. The end result is a moderately entertaining history lesson that seems destined to dominate the substitute teacher circuit; fortunately for the future students of America, Harriet is an engaging way to learn about one of history’s most inspiring figures.