Harriet

by Alan Rapp on October 31, 2019

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Harriet
  • IMDb: link

Harriet movie reviewWhile watching director Kasi Lemmons‘ take on the story of Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo) I was constantly reminded of Walt Disney’s old tall tale cartoons exploring characters such as Paul Bunyan. While Erivo is terrific in the leading role, Harriet‘s main struggle is the director and screenwriters (Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons) stalwart refusal to simply tell the fascinating life of a slave turned abolitionist in favor of building up Tubman’s legacy to mythic proportions by spending so much time focusing on her visions from God and refusing to acknowledge (even after showing on-screen) those who helped Harriet escape the South be immediately rewriting events in favor of a single-handed narrative.

Lemmons’ style of filmmaking also adds very little to the film’s production leading to a rather bland cinematic experience any moment where the camera isn’t on Erivo. The choice of visually representing Harriet’s “spells” comes off rather amateurish as well. Because the legend of Harriet Tumban smothers every frame of film, it leaves little air for any of the actors who come across mostly as cliched slave owners or unremarkable side notes to history.

I have no doubt those involved the project had nothing but respect for their subject matter, but the choices on how to present that on film leave much to be desired. While the film builds up Harriet’s role as a mythic figure in the fight against slavery it never really allows us to get to know her as a person, or any other member of the Underground Railroad that helped in her initial escape from the South or in the other slaves she helped bring North. In fact, without Erivo’s performance Harriet would be entirely forgettable (and likely something released straight to home video and cable television without ever seeing the inside of a theater). Harriet may be worth viewing for Erivo but not necessarily for anyone interested in learning more about the woman (not the myth) of Harriet Tubman given the film’s fanciful approach, and its hard not to hold that against a historical biopic.

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