DIR: Kasi Lemmons • WRI: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons• DOP: John Toll • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: Warren Alan Young • PRO: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard • MUS: Terence Blanchard • CAST: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters
When Harriet (Cynthia Envo) realises that she must escape from slavery or suffer getting sold down the river she cannot risk speaking to her mother, Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Instead, she reveals her plan in the form of a spiritual, singing to Rit while she is still toiling in the fields. It’s at moments like this that Kasi Lemmons’s biopic Harriet hits home: showing the collective pain shared by those in slavery, while also demonstrating the strategies the enslaved employed to circumvent daily injustices.
Where Harriet is perhaps not so successful is in its portrayal of its central figure, slave-turned-liberator Harriet Tubman, who single-handedly rescued 70 others from slavery and lead armed expeditions in the Civil war. While Envo endows her protagonist with a quiet certainty, the narrative feels less comfortable giving Harriet too much agency too early. Instead, after fleeing her plantation in Maryland, leaving her family and husband, she must go on an overly conventional hero’s journey in which a mix of historical and fictional characters instruct her on how to escape slavery and become an abolitionist. The historical Tubman’s belief in her direct interactions with God is played down: this sadly ends up feeling like a watering down of Harriet’s personality.
Harriet explores some interesting new ground in the slave narrative genre, highlighting some of the diverging opinions in the abolitionist experience as seen in Harriet’s relationship with real-life Underground Railroad conductor and historian William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a strong female relationship between Harriet and fictional wealthy freewoman Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). However, in other ways, Harriet is hampered by an over-reliance on the genre. In particular, too much time is taken up following a personal enmity between Harriet and her former slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). While Harriet undeniably risked danger at every step at the hands of bloodthirsty slavers who would stop at nothing to take down the mythical slave-liberator “Moses,” one suspects that filmmakers could figure out a way to highlight the plight of African American individuals without foregrounding white characters and actors.
Much of Harriet’s escape is portrayed as a sprint through the rural South as she narrowly avoids slave catchers and their hounds. This certainly lends the film an exciting, adventurous quality to it: however, it begins to strain credulity when every fugitive appears to have the lung capacity and muscular strength of an Olympic track athlete. And indeed, Harriet in general has something of a speeded-up quality to it, as certain fascinating aspects of Tubman’s life are glossed over.
If this review appears to be overly nit-picky that’s because it is. Harriet brings a lot of good to the table and more should be done to remember the extraordinary women who fought and continue to fight for Black civil rights in America. Tubman may in some ways just be too extraordinary a figure to fully capture in the form of a biopic. Ultimately, Harriet is an admirable and thought-provoking look at a pivotal figure in American history, and well worth the watch.
12A see IFCO
Harriet is released 22nd November 2019