The acclaimed filmmaker stumbles in her slick, but inaccessible portrait of the iconic civil rights figure.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.)
Given the incredible direction and general talent on display in the biopic Harriet, it’s actually painful to admit that it feels like something is missing. The woman who’s finally getting her story told on the big screen is remarkable, and perhaps we’re still grappling with just how to explain her many accomplishments.
Harriet Tubman (played with passionate intensity by Cynthia Erivo) escaped from slavery alone, which was remarkable in itself. She returned and helped others escape as well, including her own family. Working for the Underground Railroad, which had access to a vast network devoted to freeing those in bondage, Tubman never once lost one of the 70 people she conveyed to freedom. She was also a spy for the Union during the Civil War, was the first woman to lead a raid during that bloody conflict, and was active in the suffrage movement near the end of her life.
Legendary in her lifetime, an icon immediately after her death, it’s not hard to see why Tubman still remains something of an enigma in Harriet. We first meet her when she’s still enslaved, although not for long. After she learns she’s being sold further south, a place no one comes back from, she makes the decision to run off alone, refusing to risk her new husband’s freedom. She vows to live free or die, and she just barely manages to fulfill the first vow rather than the second, making it to Philadelphia, where she chooses the name that will become famous: Harriet Tubman.
The movie explains her accomplishments by conveying Tubman’s ferocious devotion to the cause of freedom, and prophetic visions that came to her after she was struck so hard by a white man as a child her skull was cracked open. People seem to prefer when opportunities are gracefully presented to women rather than allowing them to be hardworking and ambitious enough to create their own, and this approach mostly allows the film to skip all the careful planning and tremendous effort that must’ve gone into her trips south and back. It also takes out much of the suspense involved in her work, making some of Harriet feel repetitive and dull.
Harriet at least derives much of its humor from just how much this woman was continually underestimated by the men around her, especially Leslie Odom Jr.‘s William Still, who assists runaways and devotes himself to recording their stories. Janelle Monáe‘s Marie, a freeborn Black woman whose elegance belies her steely interior, makes no such mistake, mentoring Tubman in both manners and violence. You could make a whole movie about her work and life alone… or just on Monáe’s screen presence. Or at least devote more time to their friendship.
It’s not hard to see why Tubman still remains something of an enigma in Harriet.
There’s also the puzzling decision to sidestep issues of gender, and how Tubman’s more masculine way of presenting herself apparently aided in earning the respect of the men she worked with. Aside from the man she was married to in the beginning of the film, there’s not a hint of romance with any of the male characters she encounters. That’s a good change for a female character, but it’s also something of a statement in how women are still expected to shun emotions of any kind in order to be seen as on par with men.
In Eve’s Bayou, the film writer-director Kasi Lemmons is most famous for, she proved more than capable delving into such forces, as well as others, including race, class, memory, and even the magical realism which is used to far clumsier effect here. In contrast, Harriet feels like a wading pool of a movie that never leaves safe waters. Hopefully, another film will come along which will trouble the surfaces of depths that still remain untold and unexplored.