director: kasi lemmons | runtime: 125mins | biography, drama
Minty Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) escapes her life as a slave by travelling to Philadelphia on foot. Once free, she become an important figure in the anti-slave movement The Underground Railroad, and while a member, freed over 70 slaves from captivity.
Something that often occurs in the latter part of the year is the idea of ‘Oscar-bait’ films, visually glossy movies that aren’t obvious in their similarities but usually adhere to the same tone and themes. Bolstering either a heavy cast of A-listers, or using the historic backdrop to grasp at the Academy voters hearts. Some are better than others mind you, Crash (2004) somehow managed to win the Best Picture award despite being obvious in it’s baiting, and films like The Revenant (2016) and The Post (2017) are at the better end of the spectrum. Harriet, while telling an important story, falls into the same category. It finds it’s success though from a wonderfully commanding performance from it’s star, Cynthia Erivo.
It seems strange that in the progressive environment films are being born into, that Harriet Tubman has never had any cinematic exposure. A figure with such distinction and historical change is something that Hollywood often jump to, and even this first-time effort doesn’t seem to be getting the coverage it perhaps deserves. But the shortcomings in the marketing might be a reflection of the lackluster presentation though, as Harriet does hit the right notes but struggles to formulate into a symphony of it’s own.
Having said that, the story does write itself, a story that is so ingrained into American history it’s illuminating no matter how it’s dealt with. But interestingly, to an outside audience, probably the one thing Tubman is known for is her escape. But the movie seems surefire to rush through it, showing us only a fraction of the experience in order to get to it’s main course. It’s an understandable compromise, but this might be the first film of it’s genre to have benefited from a longer run-time. 125 minutes really should be enough for any movie but in a flash Harriet, or ‘Minty’ at the time, seems to go over 100 miles in the shortest amount of time. It’s not a major issue the film has, but when people begin to rejoice in this triumph you’re left a little out-of-the-loop.
But what follows is the true heroism of the story, as Minty quickly becomes Harriet Tubman, not just by name but in a more mythical sense. Her vigilante reputation spreads from plantation to plantation, and her notoriety becomes a beacon of hope for people. The film really finds it’s feet in these parts, as Harriet quickly becomes a figure to relish in, swerving plantation owners in her path and leaving her companions in awe as she comes back and forth with more and more people saved. The reason this change becomes so noticeable is thanks to it’s star, and Erivo’s transition from gutsy on-the-run slave to savior of the people, while slightly abrupt, is a strong character change that not only benefits Harriet but the story as well.
Constantly on her tail is her initial owner, Gideon Brodess, who begins as the main villain but slowly fades into obscurity as the bigger picture emerges. From the get-go though Gideon is a relatively one-dimensional character which is not always a bad thing when portraying a plantation owner, but when compared to Fassbender’s character in 12 Years a Slave (2013) you realise how bland he really is. Take nothing away from Joe Alwyn who plays Gideon, but from the beginning there isn’t much to chew on in terms of depth. By the end of the movie, once Harriet is a star in the Underground Railroad, the fable attempts to capture her become a distraction from the main story, and in a final showdown between the two it’s obvious that once again Erivo is the reason it finishes so strongly.
Harriet certainly isn’t groundbreaking in it’s storytelling nor is it a one-trick-pony, as the supporting cast really do well in the roles they are given. Janelle Monae is always a welcome addition since her great year in 2016, and Leslie Odom Jr. is another standout. But unfortunately Harriet does stumble in consistency, struggling to pace itself and honestly feeling a little too short. But, Cynthia Erivo is someone to relish in, and she once again proves her potential.