Harriet Tubman is one of those towering historical figures whose story is so iconic that it’s shocking it’s never been a film before, but finally in 2019 we get the first film ever about one of the most famous heroes of the abolitionist movement. It’s subject material that’s so sensitive that it was undoubtably strenuous to make, and unfortunately Harriet feels like the safest possible way to tell this story. It’s a film that knows its material is important but never really shows it; the history onscreen feels like a recreation, and the lack of authenticity makes it hard to consider Harriet to be much more than a history lesson.
The film tells the most important segment of the life of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), as she’s subjected to the horrors of slavery and embarks on a escape that forces her to leave her family behind. As Harriet finds a life in free land, she becomes acquainted with the Underground Railroad movement and embarks on a series of missions to free slaves. On her way, she’s pursued by her former owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who becomes obsessed with finding the woman whose become an inspiration to all those in chains.
It’s hard to cover Harriet’s entire life in just one film, and while Harriet tries to fit in as much material as possible it’s often not able to acutely depict why each element is important. The strongest theme in the film is the one of family; Harriet’s familial bonds are shattered when she’s forced to leave her family behind, and when she’s reunited with her husband and parents she finds that she will never be the same person to them. It’s a nuanced approach to how slavery rips apart any sense of normalcy, but there are so few scenes early on establishing their relationships that the eventual emotional high points don’t hit in the way they should.
This is a PG-13 movie, and while obviously its intent may be to tell this story to a broad audience, it also does feel like it’s holding back. Violence in of itself does not make a movie better, but there’s not a whole lot of menace that comes out of the slave owners. Since the film spans multiple missions and many years, it often feels like a series of anecdotes, and while many are inspiring and emotional, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive character arc. The last few minutes are particularly baffling, as the film skips forward in time a few years for a closing scene that just reiterates a similar point that was made moments earlier.
For a story this epic, Harriet often feels small in scope, limiting most of the scenes to the same plantation or a revolving series of dimly lit rooms. Even if the film’s goal was to be minimalistic in its approach to history, none of the sets really stand out or feel like they could exist outside the confines of the narrative. This is also an issue with the direction; there’s an awful lot of sitting down and talking, and at one point some of the most interesting moments are graced over in a montage. The issues are urgent, but that doesn’t come across in the way the narrative is structured.
It’s also an issue when it comes to the dialogue; there are so many instances in which characters recount events or describe their emotions in ways that would’ve been much better if they were visualized. Every line is delivered with the importance of a monologue, with an odd amount of attention paid to the religious aspects (outside of Harriet’s rebuttal of her owner’s religious claims this doesn’t really go anywhere). When everything is treated like its a big historical moment the film feels less lived in and more insistent, and there’s a point when the reverence for the real events can restrict the storytelling capabilities.
The reason to watch the film, and the reason it holds together as well as it does, is the lead performance by Cynthia Erivo. Erivo, who had a big breakout last year with Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, is able to transcend some weak writing with the gravitas she carries. There’s an urgency to Erivo’s performance, and that urgency comes from the compassion she feels and her desires to free all those that have suffered. The best parts of the film come from Harriet’s interactions with those who she mentors and frees, and these brief moments of seeing a movement emerge from individual action allows the film to find the personality within history.
In fact, the entire ensemble is very strong, with a notable side performance from Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still, a fellow abolitionist who introduces Harriet to the Underground Railroad- he’s charming and gives Harriet someone to confide in. All of the actors who play Harriet’s family are excellent too, and even if the script gives them little to do, I think the ensemble elevates these roles from faceless victims to real people. If there’s any performance that really doesn’t work, it’s Joe Alwyn; while I see what Alwyn was going for, his smarmy characterization is too broadly written to be interesting, and his final confrontation with Harriet lacks any substantial character connection.
There’s a lot to like about Harriet, namely some sporadic inspiring moments and its heartfelt familial themes, and while I can see it being a good educational tool it’s not really that substantial as a narrative. It’s a blandly shot film that seems to sanitize and simplify its issues, and despite Erivo’s great performance this does feel like a checklist of biopic cliches. I can’t imagine the challenges of putting this film together and the importance it has, but Harriet ultimately feels like a first draft of what could be a monumental achievement. Grade: C