Harriet Review: How Did They Mess This Up? A paint-by-numbers biopic

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Summary

Even a solid performance by Cynthia Erivo in the title role can’t save this formulaic, boring retelling of the important story about one of America’s greatest heroes.

The name of Harriet Tubman exists in history books. We see her mentioned in museums, parks, historical sites, and paintings. The U.S. twenty-dollar bill even almost wore Tubman’s face and name.  She made a larger impact than most and hasn’t been forgotten by many, which is why the disappointing nature of Harriet feels even worse.

Harriet bangs a similar drum as Judy did just a few months ago, another paint-by-numbers biopic that neither surprises nor shakes. A film depicting the life and times of Tubman should have had more bite, more excitement, and more emotion. Harriet lacks all of the above, instead opting for an over-the-top score, long speeches, and a clear religious fervor.

Though the real Harriet Tubman experienced visions which she attributed to God, making her devout in her spirituality, the film hammers home this fact a bit too often. Tubman suffers from these “spells” as they call them constantly, and her survival depends on these visions.

She prays mostly in the direction of trees, and she bears a likeness in name and in action to Moses, parting the sea and leading people to freedom. Every time she faces possible capture, a vision befalls her, and leads her in the correct way, leading the audience to believe that God deserves more praise than Tubman herself.

The writing and storytelling frustrate you at every turn, and you actually wish that the film is over soon after it starts, because you already know what is going to happen. You know she will escape. You know she will help others escape. And you know she will ultimately defeat, but not kill, her master. The filmmaking doesn’t allow room for any other outcomes, surprises, or plot points.

Cynthia Erivo does an admirable job in the role of Harriet Tubman, and she deserves praise for making lemonade out of some rotten lemons. She avoids overperforming, rather giving a composed and positive portrayal of an American, almost mythical at times, legendary figure. The rest of the cast serves the purpose of existing for Tubman to save them or resisting Tubman’s saving efforts. The heroes and the villains are clear, and without Erivo, this movie would have had zero impact.

The film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, somehow makes Tubman’s story uninteresting, zapping the excitement out of its events. We don’t get to see Harriet Tubman the badass, nor do see get to see Harriet Tubman the war hero. We don’t get to see Harriet Tubman the diplomat or even Harriet Tubman the slave. Her journey to freedom lasts all of a few minutes and feels lucky and odd.

The film deprives its audience of knowing Tubman, and sometimes even rooting for her, as she leaves her husband, is upset that he’s remarried, and initially jeopardizes the plans of the anti-slavery organization. It might be incredulous to say, but some of her decision-making feels risky at times, and we end up hoping that God, or someone else, will save Harriet Tubman, a woman that survived far worse in real life.

Harriet explores the interesting topic of those that don’t choose to run with Tubman’s sister, but it acts as a short aside instead of a talking point. Some stayed behind in the South, and those people aren’t given a real place in this film.

This Harriet Tubman biopic traverses no new territory, giving into the tropes of a feature following real events. A fine cast and a beautiful landscape help to minimize the poor script, but this is a film that you should pass on. Wait for the next big biopic, and hope that it brings perspective, poignance, and progression, three elements that Harriet sorely lacks.


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Michael Frank

Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.

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