Runtime: 125 Minutes
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters
By Audrey Fox
Here it is, 2019, and we’re just getting our very first feature film biopic of civil rights legend Harriet Tubman. It’s just a shame that it isn’t a more inspired one. Cynthia Erivo is more than competent in the lead role, bringing a vibrancy and determination to Tubman’s heroism, but the rest of the film is a drab, paint-by-numbers biopic.
Harriet was born a slave, under the name of Araminta Ross. When the film begins, she and her free husband John (Zackary Momoh) are unsuccessfully arguing the legality of her enslavement with her master. Their failure to negotiate Harriet’s freedom makes them so desperate that they discuss running away together, but circumstances transpire that force her to take the long, arduous journey north alone.
“Cynthia Erivo is more than competent in the lead role, bringing a vibrancy and determination to Tubman’s heroism, but the rest of the film is a drab, paint-by-numbers biopic.”
“Harriet” does an excellent job establishing the many inherent dangers of a slave escape, and the tremendous spirit and force of will required to undertake such a journey not just once but several times, as Harriet Tubman did. Time and time again she averts disaster with a sixth sense, or what she would call a connection to God. Although these visions are, in a sense, historically accurate (she did experience “spells” throughout her life, most likely as a result of a head injury she suffered in childhood), the reliance on these within the narrative actually does the character a disservice. By attributing her success to the supernatural rather than Tubman’s own nerves of steel, it dilutes the strength of her feats.
Erivo makes for an exception Tubman, especially when she’s given the opportunity to sing, which can hardly fail to elicit goosebumps from even the most hard-hearted viewer. Still, there are moments that come across as presentational rather than deeply felt, where the script calls for a dramatic speech but the narrative hasn’t quite earned it. At its weakest, “Harriet” is content to merely chug along from plot point to plot point. Like its heroine on long and laborious journeys to and from the South, it’s constantly moving but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“Nevertheless, there’s plenty to like in “Harriet.” Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom, Jr. are noteworthy if somewhat underutilized, offering a different perspective on the African-American experience as black people who weren’t born into slavery.”
Which is a shame, because this is Harriet Tubman. One of America’s greatest ever heroes. The first woman on the US $20 bill (which Trump will hopefully stop delaying any day now). How dare a movie about her, the first real biopic she’s ever gotten, be just average? Erivo brings tremendous force and emotion to her many stirring monologues about the nature of freedom, but they reach a point of diminishing returns where it’s hard not to feel that the film is just going through the motions.
Where it could soar to new emotional heights, it is instead content to plod along a dull, unimaginative path thousands of other biopics have tread before “Harriet.” And while it doesn’t deserve any greater condemnation than all the rest of the merely mediocre films about famous white historical figures, its failure is felt more keenly because of how much potential it squandered, and how sorely needed a spectacular Harriet Tubman biopic is.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty to like in “Harriet.” Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom, Jr. are noteworthy if somewhat underutilized, offering a different perspective on the African-American experience as black people who weren’t born into slavery. Neither of them gets the opportunity to sing, which is another crushing disappointment, but other than that their performances are thoroughly engaging. Another standout is Henry Hunter Hall as Walter, a slave tracker who joins forces with Harriet and fills the screen with some much-needed energy. But despite these strong performances, “Harriet” falls flat when asked to move beyond the ploddingly straightforward.