Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 21, 2020)
With 2019’s Harriet, we get a biopic about legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. Initially set in 1849, Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) serves as a slave on a plantation owned by Edward Broadess (Michael Marunde).
Although Edward’s great-grandfather decreed that Minty’s mother Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and all her children be freed when she turns 45, Edward refuses to do so. When Minty’s free husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) presents a legal letter that demands their release, Edward simply tears up the missive and continues to keep Minty and the others captive.
After Edward dies, his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) views Minty as a troublemaker and plans to sell her. Rather than suffer this form of separation from her family, Minty flees north.
Minty makes it to Philadelphia and adopts the name “Harriet Tubman”. As she creates a new life, she remains determined to free her family, a desire that sends her back south to rescue them.
After one successful mission, Harriet finds her calling. She becomes a notorious “conductor” in the Underground Railroad and takes many slaves to their freedom.
With a movie such as Harriet, it can feel sacrilegious to offer too much criticism. Given the beyond reproach nature of its lead and the message it imparts, negative comments can seem unseemly.
But I’ll go there anyway.
At all times, Harriet offers a respectful, well-meaning movie that seeks to impart its main character’s greatness – and that’s the problem. The filmmakers appear so focused on Tubman the Legend that they fail to explore Tubman the Person.
Harriet believes she receives messages from God, and the film never really seems to question this. Oh, we learn that she suffered a severe head injury as a child, and this leaves the impression that her “visions” might really be seizures, but that’s a minor aside.
Instead, the film treats Harriet’s divine visuals as fairly literal, and this leads to perplexing scenes. For instance, Harriet leads an escape party across an apparently impassable river.
As she wades across, Harriet pauses to get another vision from God, and then she makes it the rest of the way. Did God raise the riverbed in those moments, and less divinely-guided people would’ve drowned?
Even without these odd scenes, Harriet suffers from its refusal to paint Tubman as anything other than a flawless missionary for good. Make no mistake: Tubman was a remarkable person who led an amazing life.
That doesn’t mean she lacked nuances and humanity, though. Harriet seems afraid to give its lead any kind of real depth or doubts, and that feels like a mistake.
It reminds me of 1988’s Last Temptation of Christ. Much of that movie’s appeal came from the way it portrayed Jesus as a character with real humanity and not just the perfect being we usually see.
None of that comes across in Harriet. Tubman never appears to harbor any doubts, and she never seems tempted to simply enjoy her freedom.
This means we never get any real sense of struggle or pain. We often hear of the deadly challenges Tubman encounters, but we don’t feel any of that.
Tubman accomplishes her goals with relative ease against various threats, none of which act as true impediments. Granted, history means we know Harriet will succeed, but the film still could’ve created a stronger impression of menace.
Among the movie’s liberties, the most damaging comes from the use of Gideon as our One Size Fits All villain. Gideon didn’t exist so the film created him just to be a concrete antagonist.
Alwyn portrays him as a nearly literal moustache-twirling baddie, and his scenes become nearly comical in their cliché manner. Tubman’s life brought more than enough real drama, so the filmmakers didn’t need to invent a stock villain to convey these elements.
At all times, Harriet brings a professional affair. Led by a steady, earnest performance from Erivo, the actors largely do well.
Well-intention as it may be, though, Harriet seems oddly bloodless and flat. This often feels like glorified TV movie fare, as it lacks depth and much impact.