Harriet director Kasi Lemmons is an award-winning filmmaker. Star Cynthia Erivo is one of the most enthralling actresses working today. And the exciting story of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman certainly deserves a big-screen treatment. So, why does this new biopic feel so stiff and formulaic? Tubman’s story is a fascinating one, but those tasked with telling it here ended up treating her narrative with far too much reverence. They’ve also squeezed too many chapters of her biography into its 125-minute running time. Thus, this Harriet stands as a noble effort, albeit one that buckles under the strain of its deference and weight.
The story of the famed runaway slave Harriet has a lot of ground to cover, literally and figuratively, and this film bites off more than it can reasonably chew in one sitting at the Cineplex. (Tubman’s story would’ve been better served in the longer form of a TV miniseries.) There’s so much narrative to get to that the film eschews the fascinating childhood of Araminta “Minty” Ross (Erivo) and starts with her as a newlywed in 1849. The new Mrs. Tubman attempts to leave her enslavement to the Brodess family with her free husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), but there are snags in the local laws. The Brodess’ refuse to honor John’s legal rights and wholly ignore the manumit clause that should have freed Minty’s mother as well.
Minty’s dreams are further dashed when vile slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) attempts to sell her to break up her family. That’s the last straw, so she flees the plantation at night, running on foot towards freedom in Philadelphia. Minty’s escape makes for one of the most exciting parts of the story, particularly as it showcases how she dodged authorities and inclement weather to get to the ‘promised land.’
Her courageous flight earns the attention of abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and boarding house proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Minty, now dubbed Harriet to hide her true identity, becomes fast friends with the sophisticated Marie and learns the Northern city ways. She also begins a partnership with Still to start rescuing other slaves via the Underground Railroad. The heart-on-her-sleeve Erivo has terrific chemistry with both Monae and Odom, but then the hyperactive plot kicks in and her Harriet character starts to act more and more like a superhero.
Not only does Harriet rescue her family, but she starts leading other slaves out of bondage too. This earns her the nickname “Moses” and omnipotence starts to overwhelm any vulnerabilities that Harriet once displayed. The obstacles of terrain and weather don’t seem a hindrance at all to her or those she’s leading to freedom, making the crossing of a river with a baby in tow seem like a piece of cake.
Harriet becomes more deity than flesh-and-blood woman in the second act, and rigidity and piousness start to cripple her character too. Her prowess is never in doubt and the film misses the opportunities to showcase how life-threatening her rescue missions were from the first moment to last. Harriet may have fainting spells here and there due to an old head injury, but they never seem to threaten her missions the way they could have in a script more mindful of her vulnerabilities.
The plot then starts to accommodate too many events and too many characters as Harriet gets involved in local politics too, and historical characters like William Seward show up for distracting cameos. Gideon’s financial hardships become a veritable B story as does his vendetta against Harriet for leaving him. By the third act, the script starts covering far too many events and geography with Harriet making clandestine appearances at churches, climbing mountains to thwart slave owners in hot pursuit, and striking poses like she’s Calamity Jane in a shoot ‘em up.
There’s far much of “this happened” and “that happened” in the script Lemmons co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard, but at least her direction knows how to deliver top-notch production values throughout. Terence Blanchard’s euphoric score is striking, as is John Toll’s saturated location cinematography. Sometimes Lemmons can frame things too tightly in close-up, not to mention centered a bit too perfect, but by and large, the look of her film is exquisite.
The telling here will likely inspire audiences who see it simply because it reveals so much of Harriet’s incredible story vividly. If only the whole of it was less formulaic and not nearly so unctuous. Towards the end, Harriet starts lecturing, even hectoring, and her diatribes feel more like the words of a modern-day professor than a period piece’s heroine. Too much classroom, not enough crackling cinema.
View the trailer for Harriet below: