Directed By Kasi Lemmons
Starring – Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Joe Alwyn
The Plot – Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, “Harriet” tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s (Erivo) escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and adult language including racial epithets
– The character study. If nothing else, Lemmons earns herself the status as the right woman to tell Harriet’s immensely important story for the respect she instills within the mentality of her leading lady. Faith, family, and freedom are the three things that shape her actions, allowing her to risk everything for the themes she holds so closely to her heart, and it outlines her as this ahead-of-her-time historical figure that sadly hasn’t received the kind of historical praise that she so desperately deserves. Lemmons depicts her as a trail-blazer, and one that still maintains the vulnerability associated with putting so much on the line, despite her exuberant bravery that shines unflinchingly on the outside. In that regard, Tubman was an icon for the many black little girls, like Kasi, who owe her the kind of homage that the film, above all else, properly stands for.
– One thunderous performances. Everyone here does a fine job living through their respective parts, but this is clearly a one woman whirlwind of a performance done through the eyes of the vastly talented Cynthia Erivo. Ignoring the controversies that came with casting her in the first place, I will say that Erivo silences the doubters with an ample amount of long-winded inspirational diatribes and an equally riveting display of emotional and physical investment that articulate the mountains Harriet moved in fighting for her freedoms. Erivo, at only a barely five foot frame, gives Harriet the kind of fearless intensity in the eyes of her adversity, that resonated across the country why she was one to be feared by many, and admired by more. The film is only as watchable as it is because of Erivo’s extremely gifted performance, and if nothing else should earn her an Oscar nomination next February.
– Established production design. In the immersive quality for the film, there are many examples that give it that distinct look of 19th century appearance told through the lens of 21st century technology, but none more captivating than the amounts of throwback threads and impactful set designs that remain consistent throughout. On the former, there’s the mundane weathering of plantation outfits, which convey the idea that all names and identities are lost in a sea of similarity. For the latter, I thoroughly thought the log cabin’s captured a cheap quality of life for the many slaves, that visually conveyed a depravity that was typical for them. In addition to this, Philadelphia is granted a distinguishing aura of top-shelf class and sophistication that makes it the ultimate finishing line for Harriet’s testing cross-country journey. The production picks up the slack where the script dooms the film into conformity, and presents us with eye-popping visual aspects that absorb as much about the time period as possible.
– Use of color. There are two sides to this artistic integrity, and each have their own important ideal of rendering that plays a pivotal roll in Harriet’s journey. While initially I thought that the blueish hue that adorned so much of the film’s first half was used just a means to accentuate the many visions that Harriet was shown from God, they are in fact meant to represent the cold, damp atmosphere that many feel in being held captive against their will. This becomes evident when the same blue is used in scenes that don’t even feature Harriet, but remain persistent in the southland setting. The other color is gold, and this is used to convey freedom, as evidenced by its saturating quality in frame when Harriet finally arrives in Philadelphia. It’s an intoxicating layer of cinematography meant to inspire warmth in the registries of the audience watching, and does an exceptional job in illustrating the proper tone between the two sides.
– Scintillating score. The work done here by composer Terence Blanchard incorporates a fine combination of stirring compositions and gospel hymns sung by the characters in frame to give it a distinct uniqueness from other films of the slave subgenre. I say this because movies like these are often rare to spot characters still sporting the tool of Christ within their registries, but it brought forth no shortage of forth-coming goosebumps to my arms each time their notes relayed that they still fight. For the lyric-less music, the air of sentimentality that usually cripples my theatrical experience in sappy films prospered with driven intensity, that filled in the gaps by amateur direction in that field. There’s an achingly tense cloud of inevitability that is presented at sturdy levels of volume, never overtaking what’s transpiring on-screen, and always acting as the necessary highlighter of emphasis to push investment even further.
– Superhero framing. Tonally, this film couldn’t be anymore insultingly ineffective for the factual storytelling that should be enough. This feels very much like an origin superhero movie, and one that isn’t a good thing to the sensitivity of the subject matter. There’s personal loss, injuries that lead to super-powers, an over-the-top antagonist with some truly dreadful lines of dialogue, and a hero who pops up at just the right time to even the score. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that the decision to make this an action film was one that did a great disservice to the film, but looking at it now, that’s the least of my worries. “Harriet” is one Sam Jackson cameo away from being an Avenger, and commits the biggest error of its material, in that it never remains true to itself.
– Too soft. In the era of films like “12 Years a Slave” or “Birth of a Nation”, there’s simply no room for films about slavery to be reduced to a PG-13 rating, and somehow expect to properly attain the air of authenticity that it requires in relating the fear and disgust to its audience. In this regard, “Harriet” is the safest film about slavery that I’ve ever seen, trading in disgusting treatment for implication. In fact, it’s so astonishingly farce that the white slave owners don’t do anything worse than tearing up freedom papers or separating family members throughout the film. Instead, they recruit a black muscle to do all of their dirty work for them, and because of it, is never able to articulate the menace of the antagonist properly, nor give the audience as much empathy for the slaves as what should be easily intended. “12 Years a Slave” captured such unflinching intensity with its torture that never felt exploitative or unnecessary to the integrity of the picture. It used it to paint a picture of both sides of this world, and did so with such articulance that I begged for these slave owners to meet their makers, something this film doesn’t even come close on.
– Shortcuts importance. I’ve always thought that Harriet Tubman’s life story is simply unable to be adapted to the big screen because there’s so much to cover in such a short time that something is bound to be left unaddressed, and that’s the case here. The story starts with Harriet in the middle of being a slave, with no mention at all of her life before everything in frame. Aside from this, the period of Harriet being a spy during the Civil War, where she rescued as many as 800 rumored slaves is reduced to post-movie text that only hints at it. It seems like such a disservice to Tubman to not feature this in an action-dominated genre, and only offers a scope of her talents when you subtract it from the finished product.
– Taking liberties. This movie is what I call factual, but far from authentic. What I mean by that is the movie will take aspects like the Godly visions or the Fugitive Slave Act featured in the film, and spin them where the screenplay requires them to bend urgency. Yes, Tubman was rumored to have visions from God, but they aren’t the superpower that is shown in the film, but rather a mental seizure that the character suffered from each time one popped up. You could call them illusions caused by mental suffering, but lets just stick with the God stuff for now, because it’s convenient for the plot. As for the Fugitive Slave Act, it’s mentioned as being signed in 1836 in the movie, but in reality wasn’t signed until 1850. Once again, this is another example of a screenwriter who couldn’t log onto Wikipedia to cement the proper year it was established, bringing flashbacks of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for all of the wrong reasons.
– Amateur direction. I don’t have anything personal against Lemmons, but certain sequences prove she’s over her head in the bland shot compositions and lack of dramatic emphasis that go virtually unnoticed throughout the film. Scenes that should feature such suffocating intensity and peeling vulnerability, are instead illustrated as a momentary adversity, and one that the protagonists overcome with quite an inordinate amount of ease. It crafts the film’s pivotal sequences, but especially the ending, with an overbearing grounded approach, burdening us frequently with a sense of anti-climatic resistance that makes this forgettable five minutes after you finish it.
My Grade: 5/10 or D+