Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae
Director: Kasi Lemmons
We’ve hit peak Oscar season when we have our yearly biopic about the historical struggles of black people through slavery, the civil rights era, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these are important eras and topics to cover, but when you release a movie like Harriet with the intention of winning awards instead of telling a story it makes the overall experience feel cheaper than it should. That’s definitely the case with this movie, as even though the performance by Erivo is more than impressive and the musical elements are uplifting, the weird supernatural elements and concept behind the plot prevent Harriet from being the true awards grabber that it was hoping to be.
The film follows Harriet Tubman (Erivo), a slave who escaped her imprisonment and made it to Philadelphia where she is free. Knowing her family is still enslaved in Virginia, Harriet ventures back to rescue those still wishing to be free regardless of the personal consequences that come up. As the circumstances change on each of her attempts, Harriet has to adapt to a world that doesn’t want her to succeed and is actively trying to put her back in chains. When you have a movie that’s created around a central character, that performance needs to be fantastic or the whole movie will fall apart. Fortunately for Harriet, Erivo is stunning in the leading role and shows us why she’s becoming one of Hollywood’s rising stars. She might be the first actress I can say I’ve seen all of her movies and she manages to command the screen regardless of what’s going on. Harriet has an incredibly difficult journey to go through over the course of 125 minutes, and Erivo showcases the pain of her heroic life every step of the way. Now, I don’t know every detail of Tubman’s life, but the one thing that had me utterly confused were her visions and how they impacted her ability to rescue slaves. After doing some outside research, it looks like this portion of the movie was true and Tubman did suffer from head trauma. This may be a major reason why Tubman worked the way she did, but I don’t know if this was the best angle to show her talents. In a sense it undermines Tubman’s natural abilities and her understanding of her environment and her ability to get out of trouble without getting captured. If they had shown Tubman as a normal person fighting back against the injustices of society, it would’ve been far more impactful than showing her off as some sort of prophet. Harriet’s life was spent delivering freedom and justice to those in need of it and to suggest she couldn’t do it without adding some sort of religious element cheapens this experience for audiences. I have a feeling this detail was included to make it more appealing to potential awards voters, but anyone else will have a tough time this is the real story of Harriet Tubman and her journey to free slaves.
Overall, Erivo absolutely carries Harriet makes it a watchable movie, but the story prevents it from being something elite. With another fantastic Terence Blanchard score backing up Erivo, this is a fantastic movie on paper but is held back by a weak story and elements that are quite frankly unnecessary. For a first attempt at showing Tubman’s life in film, it isn’t that bad and is very close to being an elite movie thanks to Erivo’s work in the role, but I can’t help but think that those who know Tubman’s life well will be disappointed by what they ended up watching.
Overall Score: 7/10