Harriet review: A flashy, formulaic biopic of one of America’s great heroes

Dir: Kasi Lemmons. Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe. 12A cert, 126 mins. 

A handful of films about Harriet Tubman should have been made by now. She escaped slavery, and then turned back and helped countless others. During the Civil War, she became the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition. She’s one of America’s great heroes, with a story of such risk and bravery that it seems primed for the big screen. You have Hollywood’s institutional racism to thank for the fact that Harriet is the first major biopic dedicated to her. 

What a shame, then, that Harriet is such a flashy, formulaic film. It takes historical reality and stretches it over the canvas of an old-fashioned adventure story – at one point, someone genuinely utters the phrase, “We’ve got company”. The film attempts to cover all the basics of Tubman’s life, including her escape to Philadelphia in 1849 and her missions back into the slave-owning states of the South. She saved an estimated 70 slaves over the course of 13 expeditions, earning her the title of “Moses”. An epilogue covers the Combahee River Raid, an armed assault she led during the Civil War that resulted in the rescue of more than 750 slaves. 

This isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from Kasi Lemmons, whose directorial debut Eve’s Bayou – a drama rich with the mysticism of the Southern Gothic – remains one of the most impressive first features ever made. But Harriet would, at least, have felt more at home if it had been released in the Nineties, when Gregory Allen Howard wrote the first version of the film’s script – a time when historical biopics (such as Braveheart) were expected to be both epic and a little overcooked. Terence Blanchard’s score feels like it was ripped from this era, too. It often intrudes on the drama, announcing every single one of Tubman’s heroic acts with the swell of an orchestra. 

Still, Cynthia Erivo is magnificent in the role of Tubman. It’s a performance driven by pure will, and a desire to understand how a woman who’d suffered so much could continue to put one foot in front of the other and push forward. She’s gorgeously costumed by Paul Tazewell in jewel-toned dresses, layered coats, and hats set at the perfect angle. Yet Erivo is hampered by Lemmons and Howard’s script, interested only in upholding the myth of an American icon, not revealing the humanity that lived within it. 

Tubman suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 12 years old, after a slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intended for another slave, but hit her instead. She started experiencing odd visions and hallucinations, which she interpreted as direct messages from God. Harriet interprets these premonitions far too literally, using them as a plot device to save the day over and over again, as though she’s an 1800s X-Men superhero. 

There are a handful of interesting themes at play here, namely in Tubman’s interactions with black abolitionists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe, whose character, unlike Still’s, is fictional). The former is averse to risk, since he’s fixated on maintaining the secrecy of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses. The latter was born free and must learn to see the world through Tubman’s eyes. The film even touches on the collective trauma experienced by those who were enslaved. 

But these all feel like mere inklings of the film that Harriet could have been. Hopefully the next project about her will take a deeper look. 

Harriet is released in UK cinemas on 22 November

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