Review: Overstuffed 'Harriet' takes the safe and standard biopic route
Courtesy of Focus Features
A film long overdue by any means, the new Harriet Tubman biopic entitled “Harriet” tries to unpack the legacy and impact of the iconic Underground Railroad conductor. On paper, “Harriet” has all the ingredients to be a rousing and gritty take on Tubman, but instead it’s a disappointingly standard drama, one whose flaws and Lifetime movie cliches overshadow its subjects compelling story.
The script by Kasi Lemmons (who also directed) and Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans”) finds a young enslaved woman named Minty (Cynthia Erivo, “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale”) looking for ways to flee with her husband. Haunted by the memories of her siblings being sold away from her family, she’s determined to use the visions of the future to help guide her North and away from an abusive master (a cartoonishly bad Joe Alwyn).
The journey to freedom is a long and treacherous one, but Minty - now renamed Harriet Tubman - cannot live in peace until her family does. She heads back South to bring them to freedom, and takes the first steps to becoming a hero for the hundreds of slaves she would eventually help lead to freedom.
“Harriet” has many obvious signs that it’s manufactured to be a safe crowdpleaser in that it hardly depicts the graphic brutality of slavery, opting for a glossy look on the matter. It’s a choice the filmmaking team takes in stride, but I think it hurts the films credibility by taking the road less traveled. I often sat in the theater wondering where the stakes were and what obstacles Harriet might face. There’s hardly any tense conflict, and Tubman’s finer achievements are handled in a lousy montage that tries to pack so much in a tight two hour window that perhaps a limited series would've been the better route?
Of course, there’s epic speeches, a soaring orchestration that swells in all the right moments. And even though John Toll’s cinematography gives the film a glossy digital look, it’s a visual style we don’t see often in this genre, and thus it makes “Harriet” look like a Hallmark movie. You can see the crummy CGI landscapes in the backgrounds courtesy of green screen, and that only cheapens the films already amateurish production values.
The formulaic dialogue does little to elevate the material beyond a typical good vs. evil narrative, and if there weren't so many technical flaws in “Harriet” - perhaps it would be easier to forgive the flimsy plotting. Not to mention, rather serious sequences (notably Harriet crossing the Pennsylvania border) never lift off and have no emotional stakes attached to them because Ervio can’t get through the sequences without smiling.
At least the supporting cast of characters: including Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr., try to dampen the mood in the second half and bring the lead character back down to a place of realism who still continues to struggle with visions from God.
Those vision end up becoming another annoying notch on “Harriet’s” formulaic belt, as the confusing black-and-white snippets interrupt the films flow and pacing. Often slowing down an already sluggishly paced endeavor to unbearable lengths.
“Harriet” will undoubtedly work for most audiences, as it’s the type of comfort food associated with mainstream cinema. But it makes me think about “12 Years of A Slave” and how much depth and raw emotion were showcased in that films two hour time span. That film pushed audiences to look at history through a startling realistic approach. In taking the easy way out, “Harriet” - which has the distinction of being the first movie about the abolitionist hero - lacks a sense of urgency nor does it rise to a level where it’s more than just a fine piece of casual movie-going. In some circles, that’ll be okay, but I think Harriet Tubman deserves better than average storytelling.