LFF 2019 Film Review: Harriet ★★

Harriet Tubman – Prophet, Sailor, Soldier, Spy.

Director Kasi Lemmons brings us the story of one of America’s greatest abolitionists who, over the course of some 13 missions saved over 70 slaves via the Underground Railroad. Filled with an outstanding cast, lead by Cynthia Erivo and including Janelle Monae, Clarke Peters and Leslie Odom Jr, Harriet is sadly less than the sum of its parts.

The story of Harriet Tubman’s life is filled with innate drama and marks one of the most divisive times in American history, but this film takes an extraordinary life and makes it feel pedestrian.

The script lacks subtly, from Harriet’s constant rousing speeches (I was waiting for her to join Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost and shout about “cancelling the Apocalypse”), to a moment when Leslie Odom Jr’s William Still is so surprised he literally falls off his chair. The directorial bluntness is only matched by the overbearing score that fills almost every scene.

There are annoying lapses in credibility. For example, when Harriet escapes from her life as a slave, she flees in part by hiding in a cart of hay, but spends half the trip sitting in clear view of the driver, so it’s no surprise when the driver notices her and kicks her off; or when a character manages to make a remarkable sketch of Harriet’s face in the middle of the night, hidden behind bushes. The perilousness and difficult of her missions freeing slaves feels overlooked as Tubman starts popping up in places faster than characters in the final season of Game of Thrones.

The film takes Tubman’s nickname ‘Moses’ literally (including a miraculous crossing of water). Tubman claimed to have divine visions that guided her to success, and the script stands firmly on the side of divine intervention – an obvious “deus ex machina” that robs the story of tension, and Tubman of agency in her own story.

Cynthia Erivo is excellent as Tubman. She has a real knack for playing women with big hearts wrapped in nerves of steal. But this isn’t the breakout film we’ve been waiting for. Sadly the likes of Odom Jr and Monae have little to do – Monae’s Marie is practically “fridged” to keep the story moving.

Perhaps, based on the story and the casting, I had unrealistic expectations of Harriet, but when you hold it up against the likes of 12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation or even Django Unchained, it comes up wanting. In the end, Harriet is a watchable film, but a poor cinema experience when you think about what could have been achieved with this top-notch cast. There is a great film (or prestige TV series) in Harriet Tubman’s inspiring life story still waiting to be told.

By Chad Armstrong

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