2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae | directed by Kasi Lemmons | 2 hrs 5 mins |
Since the birth of the Hollywood studio system movies have strategically ridden the coat-tails of an important historical event or significant person to give movies about them the air of such importance and prestige. Just because D-Day was important doesn’t mean that The Longest Day is a great movie, because the bombing of Pearl Harbor was important doesn’t mean Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is great, reflecting on Queen’s music doesn’t make Bohemian Rhapsody brilliant and honoring Harriett Tubman’s fight to free slaves doesn’t make Harriet important. The story of the Underground Railroad Conductor seems like it would make a harrowing cinematic tale, but this is the first time it has made it to the big screen with the real horror and heroism of the situation still to be unpacked.
Directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Harriet is a very glossy, very Hollywood product shaved of any thorny edges to make the history lesson as easy and painlessly digestible as possible. It is earnest and it’s heart is in the right place, but it is also shockingly Disney-fied. It’s unclear if this decision is that of Focus Features scared of what a mainstream audience might think of a more brutal R-rated look at the story or – as I suspect – if it’s Lemmons’ creative decision to make the story accessible to a younger audience. From that perspective it’s a success, Harriet is a perfect movie to wheel into a middle school history class on a day the teacher would rather watch baseball on his phone than teach.
If you’re old enough to read this though you’re old enough to know who Harriet Tubman is and what she accomplished. Harriet skims over the most basic and superficial broad strokes of the story. It explores Harriet’s life as Minty – with frequent flashbacks to her family getting wheeled away in a slaveowners cart -, her escape and runs through the Virginia woods from house to house to get slaves to the north amidst the Fugitive Slave Act. This should be riveting stuff, here sanitized for our protection. It depicts Harriet as a gun-totting, shoe-delivering and deeply spiritual hero, the slave owners as the usual incomprehensible monsters and keeps us at arms length from the characters and away from some of the more horrific elements of slave life. I’m not critiquing this as a whitewashed history lesson, but as a story point. At some point you have to show what your villains are capable of to elevate your hero. Here Harriet is brave because the voiceovers and other characters say she is.
While this movie very often looks and feels like the kind of faith-based films that get brutalized by critics for their low budget, camp quality and obvious message, what keeps Harriet a nose above water are the all around solid performances, centered around Cynthia Erivo. Erivo, good in Bad Times at the El Royale and seriously excellent in the HBO series The Outsider, isn’t given a ton to work with here, but manages to spin what she does have into a grounded portrayal. In a movie that wants to anoint Tubman for sainthood, Erivo’s performance finds her humanity.
I get what Harriet is trying to do, introduce an important figure in history to a younger audience in a long-overdue cinematic celebration. If you’ve already consumed pre-Civil War movies like 12 Years a Slave or even Django Unchained, this one will come off as soft-peddled and ineffective. I don’t need all my historical slave dramas to be brutal necessarily, but I do prefer them to have more depth.