Dan's Review: "Harriet" Swaps Fact for Mysticism
Nov 02, 2019 12:34AM
By Dan Metcalf
Cynthia Erivo in Harriet - © 2019 Warner Bros.
Harriet (Focus Features)
Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh, Mitchell Hoog, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Omar Dorsey, Tory Kittles, Tim Guinee, Joseph Lee Anderson, Brian K. Landis, Antonio J. Bell, Willie Raysor.
Written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Slavery remains the worst stain on the United States’ history. It fostered years of dehumanizing abuse and spurred the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil, claiming the lives of more than a million people. One of the greatest heroes of the era is Harriet Tubman, a former slave who escaped to freedom and became one of the most revered “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, and organization dedicated to freeing slaves prior to the Civil War. Harriet is the first feature-length film about Tubman, released in theaters this weekend.
Cynthia Erivo portrays Tubman (whose slave name was Araminta, or “Minty”) who travels 100 miles from Maryland to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still, one of the Underground Railroad’s leaders. She also finds a home at a boarding house owned by Marie (Janell Monae) who becomes her best friend and confidant. Harriett eventually returns to Maryland to retrieve her family and free more slaves, gaining her notoriety among white slave owners who refer to her as “Moses.” As Tubman’s fame spreads, the bloodlust to capture her increases, especially from her former owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who hires slave trackers to find her. Harriet suffers from seizures, causing her to blackout and experience visions that warn her of danger, guiding her away from capture. As the Fugitive Slave Act is enacted, Hariett and the other freed slaves are forced to go into hiding, even in Philadelphia. On the run again, Harriet returns once more to Maryland to liberate her parents and face Brodess one last time. A few years later, Tubman leads a battalion of black Union soldiers into battle during the Civil War. After the war, Tubman continues the fight for equality, living out her final years in upstate New York.
I’m amazed that no one has thought of making a movie about Tubman thus far. She’s a real hero and the true parts of her story are incredible enough without embellishment. That’s only one of the deficiencies in Harriet, presenting several small and unnecessary “creative license” moments.
Cynthia Erivo, one of the brighter stars on the rise delivers a good performance in a movie that doesn’t rise much higher than your garden variety Hallmark movie. It’s a pedestrian film biography that lacks nuance or cause for abstract reflection. Everyone knows how bad slavery is, but Harriet treats the issue as a backdrop rather than an integral part of her transformation into a hero, weakening her impact on history.
Then, there’s the mysticism that makes a very real person into some sort of mythological figure with supernatural powers. In reality, Harriet Tubman should be celebrated for her drive, her passion and her example as a crusader for civil rights, instead of some sort of magical priestess. Such depictions cheapen Tubman’s real impact on history.
Even with these flaws, Harriet is an important film, if only to introduce her story into the general narrative. There are enough historical facts in the movie to perk interest and provide a role model for any individual who seeks to make our world a little better.