Harriet Tubman is inarguably one of the greatest Americans to ever live. The former slave-turned abolitionist is responsible for freeing hundreds of slaves through various ways, including the Underground Railroad. She is a true legend and it was only a matter of time before we got a biopic about her and her incredible journey.
Kasi Lemmon’s Harriet is the worst kind of biopic. Not the worst, but the worst kind. This is a Wikipedia entry on screen. A film that doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know and is loaded with so much Oscar-bait, it loses sight on the story it actually wants to tell.
Minty (Cynthia Erivo) was a slave living on a plantation in Maryland. When she is denied the opportunity to get married to her free boyfriend by her owner, something that would have made her free, she runs away from the plantation in search for freedom, leaving her family and loved ones behind. After a 100 mile trek from Maryland to Philadelphia, Minty finds solace and begins a new life as Harriet Tubman, a combination of her mother’s first name and her boyfriend’s last name. Harriet decides to sneak back into Maryland to free her family but soon becomes obsessed with trying to save every slave possible, which puts Harriet’s life in constant danger.
There isn’t much in this movie that you couldn’t learn by simply reading a Wikipedia entry on Harriet Tubman. In fact, looking at the Harriet Tubman page on Wikipedia, I learned more than I learned in this movie. All Harriet shows us is her escape from the plantation, and then what seemed like an hour-plus long montage of her freeing other slaves. The film doesn’t dive into a lot of her life other than that. Nothing about her early life, only that she got a scar on her forehead from it getting cracked open she was younger and that her sisters were sold down south around the same time. She loves her parents, I don’t know how many siblings she actually has, but she loves them, and she’s tough and will do anything to free any and all slaves. That’s it. That’s the movie. The biggest omission is the fact they don’t even show the usage of the Underground Railroad. They talk about it, but we never see how it was made or how it was used. I take back my original assessment of this being a Wikipedia page entry. This is still that, but only the first paragraph.
Harriet is a film that plays it too safe and too close to the vest. This is a movie about slavery and a terrible time in America, and yet I felt none of the harshness or brutality of that time. Harriet traveled over 100 miles to get to freedom, and yet I didn’t feel her anguish and fear of the escape. I didn’t feel the emotion of Harriet leaving her family and I didn’t feel the relief when she made it to Philadelphia. Even the Harriet’s slave owners Eliza (Jennifer Nettles, in one of the worst performances I have seen in 2019) and Eliza’s son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), never struck fear or disgust in me. This isn’t a movie that needed to get dirtier and grittier so that we could feel the emotions Harriet and everyone was feeling, that way, Harriet’s lows would crush us and her triumphs would make us stand up and cheer, both things I did approximately zero times during the film.
The person I feel the worst for is Cynthia Erivo, because she does everything and anything she can with this performance and how badly it’s written. Though Harriet is not complex at all here, something the real Harriet Tubman probably was, Erivo gives the character more emotion and depth than what was given. There are number of long-winded speeches Harriet gives that seem like they were written to be an Oscar clip for Erivo and she delivers them well. If Erivo doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, for her performance here, something she was an early frontrunner for, it won’t be because of her performance, but because of the writing and lack of character depth.
The best way to describe Harriet is soft. This is a soft biopic. Soft in its storytelling, soft in its depictions of the time, and soft in characters. Harriet Tubman is a legend and saved hundreds of lives. Such a strong, interesting, important woman deserved better than this run-of-the-mill, weak biopic.
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