Harriet (2019) Review
BE FREE OR DIE
Throughout the course of U.S. history, there have been plenty of standout moments (be it collective times of central poignancy or historical figures) that have left their mark on the nation’s history. From the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the formation of the thirteen colonies, to palpable victory in the American Revolution, to the harshness of the Civil War, and many others, the U.S. history is dotted with war, celebration, struggles, and triumphs within its birth / expansion of a prominent nation. Likewise, individuals throughout this roughly 400-year time span (of both men and women) have played a part in the founding / shaping the US…ranging from political powers to lowly soldiers / civilians. As to be expected, Hollywood has taken an interest in these “moments” in US history, with such movies and Television series like 2012’s Lincoln, HBO’s 2008’s miniseries John Adams, 2012’s 12 Years a Slave, 2006’s Flags of our Father, and 1989’s Glory just to name a few. Now, Hollywood turns its gaze back to US history once again as Focus Features and director Kasi Lemmons present the film Harriet, a biopic drama on celebrated African American women Harriet Tubman. Does the movie honor Tubman’s legacy or does its thematic message gets lost within this cinematic undertaking?
Born into the bondage of slavery in Maryland (circa 1849), Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia (Erivo) has lived a harsh reality of being denied her freedom by her master’s family (to live together with her husband) and being harassed by her master’s son, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alywn). When Gideon decides to sell Minty to another plantation owner, she decides to escape from captivity; escaping to Philadelphia and leaving her family behind. Guided by her inner strength and her visions she’s had since suffering a head injury in her youth (believing to being message from God), Minty miraculously makes it to freedom, 100 miles away from the Brodess planation. Soon after, she seeks help from the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom. Jr), who helps Minty in giving her a new life and new name…Harriet Tubman, while well-to-do proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae) in provding safe lodgings for her new identity. However, while Harriet is free, Tubman returns to Maryland to rescue family and love ones, which draws ire from the Brodess family as well as nearby planation owners in the vicinity. In doing so, Tubman goes on to become a member of the Underground Railroad and a legendary freedom fighter in her own right.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As you guys (my readers) already know that I am fan of movies, but I am also a fan of history. I absolutely love history. I sucked at math and science in school, but I was more prolithic in both English and history. What’s my favorite time period of history? Well, I would say European history (anything from the Roman Empire to modern times), but I also enjoyed reading / learning about U.S. history. Not so much on the latter portion (modern times…even though it’s important), but mostly I’m fascinated on anything from the American Revolution to World War II. I just it all to be quite interesting (almost riveting) to learning and explore all the viewpoints that the United States faced (both good and bad) and how men and women (throughout its history) change the course of the nation into what it is today. Again, for better or worse. As I mentioned above, there has been several cinematic adaptations of certain events / people of US history for a presentation medium (be it accurate portrayal or fictionalized), with some of my personal favorites being Lincoln, HBO’s John Adams, The Last of the Mohicans, Glory, and Saving Private Ryan (yes, even though the movie doesn’t take place in the US, I still consider this moment a part of U.S. history).
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Harriet, a 2019 biopic drama that takes a look at the life of famed U.S. historical figure Harriet Tubman. To be honest, I really didn’t much “pre-release” announcement about this movie online, but I do remember seeing the film’s movie trailer and was quite impressed with it. Tubman, a prominent figure in U.S. history for involvement of freeing slaves and the utilization of the famous “underground railroad, does certainly deserve a feature film about her and the movie trailer for Harriet definitely showcases that point. I saw the trailer many times when I went to my weekly movie theater outings, so Harriet was definitely on my radar to see when it got released. Plus, Cynthia Erivo was gonna play the part of Harriet Tubman and I absolutely loved her in Bad Times at the El Royale. So, I finally got the chance to see Harriet in theaters. What did I think of it? Well, Harriet is a solid (if not standard) biopic drama from Hollywood that excels by actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance as the titular character, but lacks finesse in its narration framework and some wonky creative decisions. The movie definitely honors Tubman’s legacy (and what she did), but the film itself doesn’t quite stand out as much.
Harriet is directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose previous directorial works include such movies as Talk to Me, Black Nativity, and Eve’s Bayou. While her past projects have been more moderately size (in terms of the film’s scope and inherit hype), Lemmons makes Harriet her most ambitious theatrical feature to date and does succeed in that regard; approaching the source material of Harriet Tubman in a sincere way. Of course, given that very same material to work with, Lemmons does showcase the vitality of Harriet and the tremendous harrowing journey that she took to get to freedom and the work that she (i.e the Underground Railroad) in harboring slaves to freedom. As one can imagine, Harriet’s life is quite an inspiration one for many people: for African Americans, for women, and for just simply humanity (freeing people from enslavement bondage). Thus, the tale of Harriet Tubman is ripe for the picking and Lemmons seems to craft this particular movie in a powerful and moving way to both celebrate Harriet’s personal journey, but also to honor her legacy. It’s quite clear (from onset to conclusion) that the movie wants to invoke a sense of empowerment and to honor Tubman’s tale, with Lemmons carefully carving out a portion of Harriet’s life for a feature film. Although, I think Lemmons bites a little more off that she can chew, but more on that below. Still, looking beyond that, Lemmons absorbs a lot of the feature’s runtime with plenty to exam of the time period. What do I mean? Well, of course, the movie would focus on Harriet’s struggles and triumphs, but also smaller portions of the era by showcasing the deplorable life / conditions of slavery, a few snippets of the innerworkings of the Underground Railroad, and the Fugitive Slave Act. All in all, while Harriet might not be the brightest biopic drama out there, Lemmons gives the movie a sincere authenticity polish. As a side note, though the film deals with the harshness of the time period (i.e. slavery), the movie doesn’t go quite a brutally graphic within its racial violence in a way that’s similar to 12 Years a Slave….in case viewers are wondering out there.
Harriet does have a solid production quality to the movie, which brings to life the feature’s setting and various characters that partake in Harriet’s journey. With the movie taking place in United States (circa mid-1800s), Lemmons makes the film have a genuine quality, which makes the feature’s various location and costumes have an organic feel to them rather than just “period” piece clothing and locales. Thus, I do have to commend the movie’s “behind the scenes team”, including Warren Alan Young (production design), Marthe Pineau (set decorations), Paul Tazewell (costumes), and John Toll (cinematography), for creating such a vivid drama period world for the feature. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was done by Terence Blanchard, provides a subtle melodic piece to the feature’s proceedings. It’s not as bombastic or sweeping, but it hits all the right notes, especially in the more quiet / tender ones as well as dialogue driven sequences.
Unfortunately, Harriet does stumble within its own narrative framework and some wonky decision to the storytelling. How so? Well, the main problem with the movie is that, despite having palpable and compelling story to tell, it just feels like a standard dramatic biopic. Again, with so many theatrical biopic feature endeavors that have recently come out, it’s hard for many of them to physically stand out amongst its competition. Lemmons approach is (beyond a shadow doubt) sincere and a wholesome gesture towards shedding a cinematic light on Tubman’s life and the extraordinary things she has accomplished. However, Lemmons’s Harriet is very straightforward and lacks that cinematic flourish to make the movie “pop” or even be a sweeping piece of memorable engagement. Again, the material is there, but the movie itself just feels like a stereotypical biopic narrative, with the film’s framework following a formulaic touch.
Coinciding with that criticism, the movie does have a few pacing issues throughout, which makes the film’s runtime of 125 minutes (two hours and five minutes) feel quite long and a bit tedious in demonstrating certain sequences and emotions. Thus, Harriet would’ve been slightly better (flaws and all) if the editing process produced a tighter feature. Additionally, the film’s script, which was penned by Lemmons along with a story by Gregory Allen Howard, lacks substance within certain areas as the movie’s story tries to encompass a large portion of Tubman’s life, which range from inexperienced runaway slave to confidant leader in the Civil War. Because the script / story tries to cram in a lot of pieces of Tubman’s life, Harriet seems a tad bit bloated and skims over certain pieces that be should be more elaborated upon such as Tubman’s time in the Civil War, which feels “tacked on” during the film’s final moments. In short, Lemmons / Howard’s script should focused more on a particular point of Harriet’s life in the movie in a similar fashion to Lincoln, Steve Jobs, and Darkest Hour, but ends up muddling its approach throughout lack of substance in its crammed narrative.
Also, the movie’s usage of making the character of Harriet Tubman, more or less, like a superhero of sorts feels a bit goofy. Things like Harriet’s prophesized visions, letting “god” speak to her, and her so-called “spells” all seems quite unreal and almost a bit of stretch for biopic drama feature. Of course, I’m sure there’s some type of grounds in truth to some of Tubman’s beliefs (and the things that she did and / or profess), but it all just feels a bit wonky and hackneyed towards a movie that’s grounded in realism and deals with hard-hitting issues of slavery and oppression. I know that superhero movies are still a prime staple in mainstream pop culture, but utilizing certain cues in Harriet just feels like a distraction than a means for cinematic storytelling.
What definitely helps the movie counterbalance those criticism is in the strong and pivotal performances of actress Cynthia Erivo, who portrays the feature’s main protagonist character of Minty / Harriet Tubman. Erivo, known for her roles in Genius, Widows, and Bad Times at the El Royale, Erivo certainly knows how to deliver a powerful and stirring performance within her many roles in her acting career and does so in Harriet. Her portrayal of Harriet / Minty is really theatrical moving and it’s clear from her performance that Erivo really digs deep in making the character feel multi-façade within her struggles and journey throughout. You feel her frustration, her sadness, her determination, and her unwilling strength to help free slaves from their harsh lifestyles. The true testament of what makes this movie memorable is indeed Erivo’s palpable and compelling portrayal of Harriet Tubman. Definitely one of the best (and perhaps the strongest) aspects of this particular bio-pic drama. As a side-note, Erivo, who also has a talent for singing (see her singing in Bad Times at the El Royale), does get a chance to singing in the movie and does so in a memorable way (nothing grand, but still powerful / resonating).
While Erivo’s Harriet leads the charge as the feature’s protagonist character, actor Joe Alwyn plays the film’s antagonist villain of character Gideon Brodess, Harriet’s former slave owner. Alwyn, known for his roles in Boy Erased, Mary Queen of Scots, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, can surely be a talented individual, but it doesn’t shine as much in this movie. His portrayal of Gideon works, but only to a certain degree. He gets the character, but often that not he’s just simply staring with blank expression on his face (much like his portrayal of Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Thus, Gideon only feels like a threat, but doesn’t have a profound screen presence due to Alwyn’s iffy acting talent or even Lemmons projecting of the character. In larger supporting roles, actress Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures and Ugly Dolls) and actor Leslie Odom Jr. (Smash and Red Tails) give solid performances in the movie as Marie Buchanon and William Still, two individual who help / aid Harriet’s journey of freeing slaves.
The rest of the cast, including actor Clarke Peters (The Wire and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Harriet’s father Ben Ross, actress Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America and Saints & Sinners) as Harriet’s mother Rit Ross, actor Zackary Momoh (Seven Seconds and Doctor Sleep) as Harriet’s husband John, actress Jennifer Nettles (The Righteous Gemstone and The Launch) as Gideon’s mother Eliza Brodess, actor Henry Hunter Hall (Waist Deep and Black Nativity) as hunter / tracker Walter, and actor Omar J. Dorsey (The Blind Side and Queen Sugar) as slave hunter / tracker Bigger Long, are all good in their respective roles, but none of them make their respective characters memorable. Their talents are well-represented, yet nothing of them truly stand out in Harriet.
The story of Harriet Tubman and the indomitable courage she displays of her involvement in freeing slaves takes center stage in the film Harriet. Director Kasi Lemmons’s biopic endeavor drums up cinematic empowerment for Harriet Tubman’s journey from frightened slave to one of the most prominent women in US history; providing a narrative that emboldens her tale and will definitely resonate with many viewers out there. While the movie itself struggles within its standard biopic framework, lacking a certain directorial finesse, and some wonky decisions, the movie’s approach to Tubman’s struggles / triumphs are well-represented with actress Cynthia Erivo delivering a powerful performance in the role. To me, this movie was good. Yes, I think that the movie could’ve been better handled (in terms of story / character development), but the film was still able to cultivate an alluring and entertaining historical bio drama piece. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is both a “recommended” one as well as a solid “rent it”. In the end, while the movie might not find its proper footing in today’s plethora of biopic movie endeavors, Harriet still retains a sensible (and almost heroic) journey towards Harriet Tubman’s life as well as honoring the defining legacy she left behind.
3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
Released On: November 1st, 2019
Reviewed On: November 17th, 2019
Harriet is 125 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets