×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Harriet’

Cynthia Erivo plays the escaped slave Harriet Tubman with a mournful fury, but the rest of Kasi Lemmons' biopic is more dutiful than inspired.

Director:
Kasi Lemmons
With:
Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh.
Release Date:
Nov 1, 2019

Official Site: https://www.tiff.net/events/harriet

When you see photographs of Harriet Tubman (and many exist), she appears, in an eerie way, to be staring right at us. Her implacable scowl throws down a gauntlet that cuts across the ages. Cynthia Erivo, the British singer and actress who takes on the title role of “Harriet,” nails that thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence. She looks just like you’d imagine Harriet Tubman might have looked when she wasn’t staring down a photographer’s lens. As Harriet, Erivo communicates anger and anguish, fear and resolve, all held together by something like possession. (When you regularly commune with God, your eyes might tend to fixate on something beyond the everyday.)

Fleeing from the Maryland plantation on which she was born and raised, Minty, as she’s first known, winds up on a bridge suspended over a rushing river, with armed men hemming her in from either side. She takes a leap into the rapids — her smartest strategy, but it’s also a mortal plunge. At that moment, having gotten rid of her spiritual shackles, she would rather be dead than find herself a slave again. (It’s not a choice, it’s an instinct.) The river carries her off, and once she’s alone in the woods, she winds up taking the 100-mile trek all the way up to Pennsylvania, the free state that borders Maryland. As she approaches the state line, bathed in the light from the sunrise, she takes a little hop over it, and her face opens into a smile, giving off a momentary glow that lifts you. It may be the only time in the movie she’s completely unburdened.

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, when she was 27, and wound up in Philadelphia, where she could have chosen to settle into, for that time, a (relatively) safe and comfortable existence. But that choice wasn’t in her mental-spiritual vocabulary. She had left her husband, and the rest of her family, and so she went back to get them. She wound up making 13 missions and guiding 70 enslaved people to freedom. She is one of the most heroic individuals in America, and her story is one of the most extraordinary.

“Harriet,” directed and cowritten by Kasi Lemmons (who made “Eve’s Bayou” and the even better “Talk to Me”), has got the heroism covered — the courageous audacity of Harriet Tubman’s struggle. Minty, who is subject to fainting spells (the result of one of her masters cracking her head open when she was 13), goes into the wilderness armed with nothing but her wits, and comes out the other side. Rechristening herself Harriet, she turns into a stealth abolitionist, and a leader too, brandishing a pistol that she’s willing, if need be, to turn on her own people (to get them to cross the water they’re scared they’re going to drown in). She’s cautious, but she can also be reckless, because that’s the unprecedented nature of what she’s doing. As she becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad, her bravery just grows, to the point that she wields that pistol as if it were part of her.

As a heroine, Harriet Tubman is long overdue on the big screen, and “Harriet” is a conscientiously uplifting, devoted, rock-solid version of her story. Yet when it comes to putting the audience in touch with what’s extraordinary about Harriet Tubman — not just illustrating what she did but letting us connect with that quest, and with her, on a moment-to-moment level — “Harriet” is a conventional and rather prosaic piece of filmmaking. I don’t tend to complain much when movies feature inspirational musical scores, but the score of “Harriet,” written by the jazz composer Terence Blanchard, has a surprisingly standard Jerry Goldsmith-meets-Aaron-Copland blandness that keeps getting in the way of what we’re watching. There are too many scenes where the music is asked to do the movie’s work for it: to create a rush of emotion, when the scenes, as written, should be doing that on their own. At one point, Lemmons uses Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” to accompany a slave-escape montage, which gives the film a momentary charge but just makes you think: This isn’t a subject that’s really right for a montage.

And there’s a crucial way the film could have been more experiential. Since “Harriet,” as a biopic, is long overdue, whenever we’ve heard her story we’ve had to imagine the details of how she made it all that way, evading lethal wildlife and racist white Southern hunters. Theoretically, that should make for a kind of Civil Rights adventure movie. But Harriet’s voyages from the South to the North feel physically underdramatized. Wouldn’t we want to know, as if we were taking the journey ourselves, just what it felt like? Too often Harriet’s odysseys have the generic flavor of ‘70s TV-movie chase scenes.

It’s not as if there are a ton of dramas about slavery, but six years ago “12 Years a Slave” was so scaldingly intense in the depths of its agony, the power of its faith, that it’s hard to watch “Harriet” without noticing how much less potent the characterizations are. Joe Alwyn plays Harriet’s most sadistic master, who grew up with her and has to suppress his love for her, to the point that he only talks about slaves with ugly animal metaphors — a completely believable 19th-century racist characterization, but not exactly a deep or resonant one. (Just compare him to the Paul Dano or Michael Fassbender characters in “12 Years a Slave.”) In Philadelphia, Harriet finds a community — the born-in-freedom rooming-house proprietor Marie, played by Janelle Monáe with saucy pride, and the abolitionist William Still (a disarmingly benign Leslie Odom Jr.). The actors hold you, but I wish the characterizations were richer. Even the great Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has a sweet presence but limited impact.

“Harriet” ultimately evolves into a kind of righteous Western action movie, built around the logistics of how to escape a posse of slave hunters. Harriet gets to get good with her gun, and that’s fair enough, since she wound up being one of the only women in the Civil War to lead a military patrol. It’s one more thing about her to be in awe of, and “Harriet” is nothing if not a dutiful and eye-opening salute. But it still leaves you feeling that the great movie about Harriet Tubman has yet to be made.

Related:

Film Review: 'Harriet'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 10, 2019. Running time: 125 MIN.

Production: A Focus Features release of a Stay Gold Pictures, Martin Chase Productions production. Producers: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard. Executive producers: Josh McLaughlin, Shea Kammer, Nnamdi Asomugha, Bill Benenson, Pen Densham, John Watson, Kristina Kendall, Elizabeth Koch, Charles D. King.

Crew: Director: Kasi Lemmons. Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard. Camera (color, widescreen): John Toll. Editor: Wyatt Smith. Music: Terence Blanchard.

With: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh.

More Film

  • The Day is Long and Dark

    Francisco Barreiro Cast in Upcoming Julio Hernández Cordón Project (EXCLUSIVE)

    Julio Hernández Cordón, one of Mexico’s most-awarded independent filmmakers over the last decade, has found the leading man for his next feature “The Day is Long and Dark (My Friends are Vampires),” in Fantastic Fest best actor winner Francisco Barreiro, star of Adrián García Bogliano’s “Here Comes the Devil.”. Barreiro’s casting was shared with Variety from Buenos [...]

  • Macabre

    Rio Fest’s Compact Edition Opens Amidst Sectorial Crisis

    RIO DE JANEIRO  — The 21st Rio Intl. Film Fest opens Monday Dec. 9t with the screening of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” in the Odeon landmark theater. The smaller than usual edition, which was almost cancelled due to the lack of municipal backing, reflects the crisis of Brazil’s film sector, involved in a battle with the administration [...]

  • Papa-YouTuber

    Peru’s ‘Papa YouTuber’ Goes Global (EXCLUSIVE)

    Argentine sales agency FilmSharks Int’l label The Remake Company has sold remake rights at Ventana Sur to Peruvian family comedy hit “Papa YouTuber” (“YouTuber Dad”) to Mexico’s Cinepolis and Italy’s Colorado Films, with several other territories pending. Advanced discussions are underway in Germany, with Spain, France and the U.S. also pending. “The U.S. deal will [...]

  • Elia Suleiman attends the screening of

    'Pleasure Is Extremely Political,' Palestinian Filmmaker Elia Suleiman Says

    In a freewheeling masterclass held at the Marrakech Film Festival on Thursday, director Elia Suleiman offered as concise a mission statement as can be, defining his guiding beliefs in four short words. “Pleasure is extremely political,” said the Palestinian director, whose films have approached the fraught nature of life in the occupied territories with a [...]

  • Panel-Ventana-Sur-2019-1

    Ventana Sur: Industry Luminaries Converge, Talk Women In Cinema

    BUENOS AIRES – Ventana Sur’s Opening Windows conference series welcomed an esteemed line-up of women in film to Buenos Aires’ UCA campus on Wednesday afternoon for a panel that sought to familiarize the audience with the enormous weight of breaking into a male-dominated industry throughout the years. Among the panelists was Argentine Producer Lita Stantic, [...]

  • ALMAMULA

    Eurimages Winning Project ‘Almamula’ Stands Out at Ventana Sur’s Proyecta

    Juan Sebastian Torales arrived at this year’s Ventana Sur Proyecta showcase for Latin American projects as one of the event’s most buzzed up debutants with his upcoming semi-autobiographical feature “Almamula.” In September, Torales and producer Pilar Peredo, from France’s Tu Vas Voir, pitched the project at San Sebastian’s Co-production Forum, where it won the Eurimages [...]

  • Leila Kilani's 'Joint Possession' Questions the

    Moroccan Director Leila Kilani on 'New Type of Hero' in 'Joint Possession'

    Moroccan director Leïla Kilani presented the rough cut of her second feature film, “Joint Possession,” in the post-production section of Marrakech Film Festival’s Atlas Workshops. She spoke to Variety about the film, which she describes as a “war film, inside a family.” Kilani’s debut feature “Sur la Planche” (“On the Edge”), about two women flirting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content