As Hollywood, much too belatedly, fills in the gaps in the average American’s knowledge of black history, film critics and other viewers are increasingly faced with a dilemma: We no longer have to feel obligated to kvell over every single new release that sheds light on past horrors or celebrates undersung heroes. It’s still much better that such movies are coming out than not, but we don’t have to love them merely for existing. We can hold them to higher standards of cinematic art. It’s a luxury of sorts. But we also don’t want to generate the sort of nitpicky pushback that will discourage the production of more such films, or make being jaded about good-for-you historical epics a hallmark of hipsterism. As a reviewer, I see it as part of my job to nudge the studios, in my own small way, toward taking more risks, not fewer, when it comes to gauging audiences’ intelligence and hunger for historically informative storytelling.
That’s all by way of a preamble to the admission that I didn’t love Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet nearly as much as I wanted to. Yes, your kids should see this movie in middle school or high school Social Studies class. But will it satisfy grownups who have already taken in much-edgier movies that have been made about slavery in America in recent years, such as Nate Parker’s 2016 film about Nat Turner’s rebellion, Birth of a Nation, or Steve McQueen’s superb 12 Years a Slave (2013)? I’m thinking maybe not.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), the most renowned of the “conductors” on the Underground Railroad guiding escaped slaves to freedom in the North in the 19th century, is a shining star in the firmament of American heroes. There has been a TV mini-series about her, but until now, never a big-budget feature film. This was a movie long overdue to be made. That’s what makes it such an unhappy task to report that, despite several fine performances and one outstanding characterization on the part of star Cynthia Erivo, Harriet is a pretty tepid moviegoing experience. When it comes to depicting the violence of slavery, it pulls its punches way too often. The screenplay, co-written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, lacks verbal bite as well, and relies too heavily on exposition.
Worse, Lemmons’ direction, especially when it comes to blocking crowd scenes, is stagey and often awkward. For instance, in a scene on the streets of Philadelphia where someone loudly announces the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the assembled white citizenry instantly erupts into a frenzy of trying to catch the black folks standing in their midst. There’s no sense that they might’ve had to go home and think a bit about how they were going to deal with this news; the action is absurdly telescoped. Then there are all the scenes of Harriet running, running, running through the woods, tripping over a branch and running some more. And then more of the same with the escapees she’s leading: running, running, tripping. It all feels kind of predictable, arbitrary, unoriginal in terms of what is brought to the viewer’s eye and ear.
By far the most compelling reason to see this film is the smoldering fury of Erivo’s performance. Though she won a Tony in 2016 for her portrayal of Celie in the Broadway stage production of The Color Purple, Erivo is less familiar to American audiences than in her native Britain. That will now change. She embodies Tubman with such steely conviction, righteous rage and intensity that she just about leaps off the screen – and she sings pretty damn well, too, alerting her charges that it’s time to fly the coop with a well-chosen gospel verse emanating from the shadows.
Many of the supporting actors also deliver excellent work, notably Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton’s original Aaron Burr) as the abolitionist William Still; Janelle Monáe as boardinghouse proprietor Marie Buchanon; Clarke Peters as Ben Ross, Harriet’s freedman father; Henry Hunter Hall as Walter, a cynical young black slavehunter who falls under Harriet’s spell; Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Samuel Green, whose church is a hiding place for escaped slaves; and Tim Guinee as Thomas Garrett, a Quaker who helps them cross the border safely into Pennsylvania. Though it’s a stock villain we’ve seen before, Joe Alwyn is quite chilling as Gideon Brodess, fictionalized scion of the family who own Harriet, her mother and siblings; nursed back to health from a life-threatening illness as a child by Tubman, he has a complicated codependency relationship with her that fuels his determination to recapture her after she flees. The weakest link in the cast is Jennifer Nettles, who plays Gideon’s mother Eliza with the sort of Southern-belle-with-the-vapors melodrama that you thought went out with Gone with the Wind.
John Toll brings his well-honed cinematographic expertise to the film, visually rescuing some passages that clunk along as narrative. Less successful is Terence Blanchard’s soupy score, which lays on the saccharine moral uplift with a heavy hand.
Verdict: Go read a book about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Then wait for Harriet to come to your TV screen, grab the remote and fast-forward through the scenes that don’t feature Cynthia Erivo front and center. Even then, it’ll be about a half-hour too long.