I had high hopes for Harriet since I saw the trailer first pop up during the summer at the Angelika. Actually, let me go a step farther: I was moved to tears by its rousing trailer where this woman, bound by slavery, defied it to its core and became the historical icon that she now is short of being the face on a 20-dollar bill, which she rightfully deserves.
So imagine my surprise which quickly became disappointment when, once Harriet the movie proper started, that I saw none of the passion, the urgency, the need to be free, and instead I was regaled by a color-by-number rendition so mawkish and clumsy in its depiction of Harriet Tubman that it felt at times as though I was navigating through a docudrama of the cheapest sort, the kind you could see in the 70s and 80s (and 90s, if you knew where to look) in which stock actors reenacted historical events in bad wigs, overwrought dialog, and music so shrill and derivative it could easily belong in any exercise in schmaltz starring Tom Hanks during his 90s heyday.
Harriet begins proper on a shot that looks like it was borrowed from Richard Linklater’s establishing shot of Boyhood, in which we see Minty (Cynthia Eriyo) who’s lying on the grass gazing dreamily at the sky thinking of happy thoughts when her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) comes and whisks her away, only to have us realize that while the two of them are married, only he is a free person of color, while she works as a slave on the Brodess plantation. Not only that, when Minty and her mother Rit Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) attempt to assert their freedom based on contract, the Brodess’ family will not honor it.
Something clicks in Minty, a mix of the visions she gets — a residual from a nasty blow she received from her master when she was a girl of 12 — plus her own gumption, and she sets off away from the plantation, leaving her husband behind and taking off into the unknown. Now, you would think that Kasi Lemmons would focus on her journey, which must have been frought with peril and extreme uncertainty — remember, this is a woman blindly fleeing for her life and her freedom, in enormous peril where every white face could bring her back to slavery. Lemmons instead goes for broad emotions using Eriyo’s singing voice to signal portent and this Dramatic Moment, which falls flat on its face. It gets worse. The moment Eriyo, cornered, makes that fateful decision “to be free or die”, the movie cuts away from her peril and into the aftermath. A woman in the river fighting for her life would have been a showcase for incredible, nail-biting tension as well as supreme acting. Lemmons squanders that chance. Finally, when Minty finally realizes she’s standing on land that will make her a free woman, her reaction is… off to say the least. She just doesn’t convey the enormity of her action in such small a body. I would have loved to see that.
I thought, probably budget constraints, maybe stunts weren’t available, perhaps logistics just didn’t make her plight seem more memorable than the fairly uneventful trek from Maryland to safe haven in Pennsylvania. But the movie then continues to somewhat not know what to do with Minty’s story. Yes, once in Philadelphia, she contacts William Still (Leslie Odom, underused) and he allows herself to re-christen herself Harriet Tubman. Checklist. But she has a moment when she is re-telling/reliving the horror of what she experienced to Still. The camera kept breaking away to these blue-washed scenes that are supposed to be her own visions and I was furious. I don’t need that. I need to see a performance, the camera dead on Erivo’s face, as she tells her story, exhausted but free and still not quite knowing what comes next. The movie brushes over Harriet’s own reaction to her new life as a free woman, but then punctuates her visions with the blunt force of an exclamation point to establish the urgency the she must go back to get her husband.
The husband part misfires, and again, that singing, please, make that stop, it takes me out of the movie (even if it was a way of her communicating). Lemmons goes down the list of Tubman’s achievements in bringing her first batch of people to the North, but again, colors her own actions with too much self-awareness of her own future greatness, as if all this was somehow preordained. That preternatural confidence, historically, came much later. Her first trip back, again, happens with so much ease that in one shot they’ve crossed the river, the next shot they’re in Philly. We never sense that Harriet the slave who freed herself is even in real and present danger, with bounties on her life and Lemmons’s movie plays it way too safe. We only see the marks on her skin, not the horror that produced them. It goes for the movie as a whole. We only get glimpses of slavery, but never more than a lot of white actors having to say unspeakable words and hamming it up to maximize how evil they are.
I don’t want to say Harriet is a bad movie because it is not: it’s closer to a necessary movie to watch to see for historical purposes but that is it. I didn’t find it compelling at all. The picture is flat. The music score by Terrence Blanchard is so intrusive and so derivative of the likes of Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer circa Hidden Figures I almost barfed at its repetitiveness. Erivo does a solid performance and will almost certainly glean Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but I still would have preferred to have seen a character study of a woman who gradually grew into her own by defying a system that would have diminished her as a person instead of a biopic that was too self-conscious for its own good. Perhaps a longer form narrative may be the thing, although it has been done with Cicely Tyson at the helm and it’s kind of hard to top Tyson.