From the beginning of my time reviewing films, I have made my opinions on the biopic genre very well known. While the likes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman”, amongst others, garnering praise from many critics, they struck me as cliché and unfocused. I would go as far as to describe those films as well acted, loosely connected series of events devoid of an actual plot or story. With few exceptions, the genre has become a simple vehicle for actors to do an impression of a famous person and try to win an Oscar. The trend these films represented was so disheartening that I almost gave up on the genre as a whole after viewing “Judy”. However, Harriet Tubman is too important of a hero of human history to have her story be prejudged by the failures of others.
It is my pleasure to reveal that “Harriet” does, in fact, have an actual narrative. The film follows Harriet (referred to as ‘Minty’ while in bondage) as she first escapes slavery by her lonesome to the Free State of Pennsylvania, and then her heroic missions to free slaves with the help of the legendary Underground Railroad. There are a real focus and sense of organization of events, where everything ultimately plays out with purpose, and it is because of this that I believe “Harriet” is the most complete and competently-made biopic of the year.
In the lead role, Cynthia Erivo delivers a mostly subdued performance full of quiet authority. Although there are a few moments where she is asked to drift into the cliché for the sake of telling the people around her not to “tell her what she can’t do”, the majority of her screen time is not plagued by that poor direction. But the difficulty of the task presented to her is one of considerable pressure due to the importance of her character. Harriet Tubman is idolized for her heroic and selfless actions of courage to give freedom to those who have been subjected to humanity’s most wicked deeds. This is not an easy role to fill. Audiences want her to succeed because Harriet deserves Erivo’s best and I believe she reached her goal.
The supporting cast does a fairly decent job as well. While no one delivers a truly show-stopping performance, Leslie Odom Jr. Janelle Monáe, and Vondie Curtis-Hall all play their roles with charisma and poise. I wish they received some more screen time, especially Curtis-Hall’s Reverend Green. I would have liked to have seen how his black reverend in the south who preaches to slaves that the gospel teaches them to love their masters, yet helps them escape under the cloak of night, deals with the consequences of Harriet’s actions, specifically the changing dynamics with the slaves and slavers that result from it. I believe this would have elevated him beyond just a forgotten side-character, and while I suppose the same could be said about most other side characters, I personally would find this avenue most interesting.
An element the film chooses to focus heavily on Harriet’s ‘spells’, which are hallucinogenic visions she had been storied to frequently have. When she was young, she suffered head trauma that the film says began to trigger these episodes which appear to be seizures. Harriet describes them as messages from God, showing her glimpses of the future. Harriet’s faith is a major force in her life, so it is fitting that the film addresses its importance to her, however it is used as such a convenient plot device that just solves most of the obstacles in front of her. It is unclear how often or when these ‘spells’ really happened, so it just comes off as repetitive when the narrative is constantly moved along by a deus ex machina.
What is most unfortunate is that despite being soundly-made, well-acted, and based on exceptional source material, “Harriet” still feels lacking in impact. This is history’s strongest black female hero who quite literally receives prophetic visions, and yet, it feels mostly underwhelming. Perhaps it is because there is no real message to the story other than the usual “Strength comes from within” or “Slavery is bad”, or maybe it is the completely forgettable (and apparently not even real) villain of Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). You will leave the theater thinking the film is decent, but in a few days, you will move on. I believe “Harriet” is just another casualty of the biopic genre. It is certainly a step in the right direction for storytelling purposes, but the reliance on the expected continues to dull historical stories that deserve better.
I give “Harriet” an acceptable 7.0 out of 10
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters, Joe Alwyn, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Runtime: 2 Hours and 5 Minutes