In American history, Harriet Tubman stands as one of its most courageous and empowered figures. She defied the odds as a prolific conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping to free over 300 people from slavery. With a life like that it’s clear she deserves to have her story told, but unfortunately the biopic “Harriet,” by director Kasi Lemmons falls short. Despite having incredible source material to draw on the film at times feels like a Lifetime movie with a bigger budget. Following her life from early adulthood we are introduced to Harriet as Minty, enslaved on the Brodess plantation and married to free man John Tubman. It’s here that we first see Harriet suffering from one of her “spells.” Frequently throughout the film Harriet will fall over and either passes out or becomes entranced with visions from both her past and the impending future. We are told by other figures in the film that this is Harriet communicating with God to seek guidance for her choices. These visions are depicted with quick cuts and a blueish grey filter as a lazy way for the audience to understand they’re not happening in the present. The visual style of these are akin to cutaways from history channel programs and become increasingly distracting from the emotional hits of the film. With so many ways Lemmons could’ve chosen to portray these visions, it seems she went with the most obvious visual shorthands. Even if this film wasn’t trying to break aesthetic ground (and who says a biopic has to be experimental?) the pedestrian depictions lower the emotional impact of the film over time.
Another creative misstep is the musical score. While watching Harriet first escape the plantation to avoid being sold further south, a fraught and frightening journey for our heroine, the score really becomes distracting and obvious. There’s something about it that feels entirely too empty and impersonal. It sounded completely generic and in no way like it was created specifically for this story. The film’s two musical highlights come in the both the middle and the end. A year after Harriet escapes and ends up in Philadelphia she ventures back to Maryland to rescue her husband John. After finding out he’s remarried in her absence she goes on to save a group of nine slaves, including two of her brothers. This kicks off a rescue montage set to the song “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, easily one of the most satisfying sequences in the film. And then again at the end during the credits, over pictures of the real Harriet Tubman and others of the era, the song “Stand Up” written and performed by the film’s star Cynthia Erivo is played. This rousing anthem will surely be nominated for Best Song at the Oscars, and felt like a moving emotional end cap for the story. Besides these two moments, music seemed to be a secondary and an unimportant element.
The blandness of the score is as distracting as the overwrought dialogue performed as beautifully as possible by the film’s actors. The highlight of this film is definitely in the portrayals of the main cast. In her first starring role Cynthia Erivo brought as much passion as possible to help fill in the gaps of the hollowness of dialogue. Her delivery of the line “I’m going to be free or die” before she plunges off a bridge to evade her captors was chilling. Seeing Leslie Odom Jr as abolitionist William Still was fun, and brought in some levity. Joe Alwyn was satisfactory in his depiction of Gideon Brodess, the master’s son, and Harriet’s main rival, although he veered in cartoonish villainy perhaps because he was a character invented for the film. As were a few other characters (including slave trapper Bigger Long.) Choices have to made in biopics to fill in the gaps and to create a cohesive storyline for the viewer, but I believe the film suffered by adding in these over exaggerated characters. Witnessing the deep and menacing evil of real people of the time would’ve been poignant enough.
Finally the most frustrating choice was the periods of time they chose to focus on. Once Harriet is linked up with the Underground Railroad we see her transformation into “Moses” the alter ego she adopts in order to stealthily free people from slavery. This part feels rushed and it would’ve been interesting to see even more of the mechanics behind rescuing these people. At the end we see Harriet leading the raid on the Combahee River which freed more than 700 slaves. This was a short scene with a title card explaining this information. It was a misstep to tack this on at the end and to not show her time working as a spy for the union army. Of course in biopics lives have to be compressed to show the most important moments, but very few women have lead military raids so it disappointing to only catch a small glimpse of that historic moment.
It’s important to mention that at the packed screening, the entire audience erupted in cheers when the credits rolled. It was evident how moved people were and it cannot be denied that the story of Harriet Tubman is important and impactful for many people. What could’ve helped save this film cinematically is for it to have chosen a path completely. It either should’ve been a more sober look at her life, showing every gritty detail of how she escaped and the resiliency of her spirit, or it should’ve fully embraced the overly dramatic dialogue, scenes of violence, and fabricated characters and depict Harriet as a Tarantino-esque hero going for a wild revenge fantasy. Where the film actually ends up is a relatively entertaining made for TV movie that will be shown during high school history classes when a substitute teacher is in.