Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ straightforward film about the escaped slave’s transformation into an American hero who helped free hundreds from bondage.
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Vanessa Bell Calloway | Director: Kasi Lemmons | Rating: Rated PG-13 | Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
by DAN LYBARGER SPECIAL TO ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | November 1, 2019 at 2:00 a.m.
For helping free hundreds of slaves after escaping on her own, Harriet Tubman deserves her face on American money. Tubman is such an engaging historical figure that she can be portrayed many times and still be worth examining. (Cicely Tyson played Tubman in a 1978 miniseries A Woman Called Moses. I have fond memories, but it has been decades since I’ve seen this take on Tubman, so I can’t say how well it has aged.) Her harrowing rescue missions would make for a great movie.
Someday maybe someone will make one.
Despite being anchored by a terrific performance from Cynthia Erivo, Harriet lacks the focus and the narrative drive to do her story justice. The script by Gregory Allen Howard and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) has a scattershot, “oh, did you know this about her?” approach that keeps the story from gaining momentum.
The film begins with Harriet learning her hard-headed master won’t honor a legal document allowing her to marry her emancipated husband. When he abruptly dies, his even more monomaniacal son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decides to sell her.
Realizing her chances of remaining with the man she loves are even more remote if she’s sold, she flees from rural Maryland to Philadelphia. The 100-mile journey is a formidable achievement because she hasn’t learned to read words or maps and has occasional seizures. As her benefactor (Leslie Odom Jr.) in the City of Brotherly Love tells her, most escapees wouldn’t have made it that far.
Maybe Harriet’s unwavering faith in God, who she says guides her missions, and her own quick thinking give her advantages over other potential liberators.
To their credit, Lemmons and Howard have created a complicated and fascinating woman who just happened to perform extractions the CIA might envy. Erivo, whose previous roles have included stage musicals, effortlessly plays someone who is guided by voices. She may trust in the Lord, but she’s keenly aware of the stiff penalties she’ll face if she’s ever captured. Her mistakes and disappointments make her heroics easier to believe.
Where Harriet loses its footing is in the depictions of slave owners. As with 12 Years a Slave, it’s impossible to shed any tears for the people who perpetuated this evil institution. Nonetheless, the former film made these unsympathetic characters just deep enough to see how slavery contributed to their own moral rot.
Human property was expensive, and maintaining appearances ended up leading to other sins. Michael Fassbender’s slave owner in 12 Years was trapped in an unearned sense of superiority and watchable even if you couldn’t wait for Solomon Northrop to get away.
It’s easy to sympathize with Harriet and the people she rescues, so we don’t need to be reminded how awful their captors and the legal system that protects them are. We also don’t need the black-and-white flashbacks that do nothing to support the main narrative. Cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, The Thin Red Line) has already created a handsome-looking film.
There’s also a sense that we have to hit every history class bullet point even if it plays like a footnote. Why have future Secretary of State William Seward attend an abolitionist meeting if he’s not going to do anything but announce his name?
Tubman’s story is always worth recounting, but it should be worth the currency used to buy the ticket, even if her face isn’t on it yet.
| DAN LYBARGER
MovieStyle on 11/01/2019
Print Headline: Harriet