★★ / ★★★★
Daddy warned me, “Boy, having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, play with it, give it a name, but one day you might have to eat it or sell it. You know it, and the pig knows it. If you have to sell it, there’s no more guilt than separating piglets. And if you have to eat it, you’ll forget its name.”
When Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” demands to look at slavery in the eye, it is impossible for one’s attention to waver. Slaves are not people but animals. They are expected to be obedient, to be quiet, to work their skin raw. They are to be owned, sold, traded. They are even required to get permission on who to marry. When the picture simply shows the reality of black people living in the slave state of Maryland during the 1840s instead of dramatizing, it works. It is communicated to us with clarity and urgency why the story of Harriet Tubman, a slave who escaped from her master’s plantation to become a freedom fighter, is worth telling, why her legacy is worth honoring. I give the film a marginal recommendation—with crucial caveats.
It is historically accurate that Tubman was a devout Methodist. Her relationship with God was a part of who she was and this fact must be included in this film should the filmmakers wish to paint a complete picture of the subject. But must it be so ham-fisted? Notice there is a holy vision nearly every ten to fifteen minutes which hampers the momentum of the drama at times, particularly during the second half when Tubman is attempting to rescue her friends and family across a hundred miles of dangerous territory between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The terrific first half details at which point in her life she started receiving such visions and what her body goes through when premonitions go through her. But it becomes so recurrent later on that there are instances when it is almost a joke—deadly because the escape sequences are supposed to be harrowing, heart-pounding, even terrifying. There is no second chances when it comes to furious, gun-wielding slave owners looking for somebody to answer for their “stolen properties.” Surely there must have been a better way—subtler way—to tell us that Tubman’s spirituality helped to guide her decisions. It is so heavy-handed at times that on occasion all that is missing is a floating halo above Tubman’s head.
It is a shame because Cynthia Erivo is wonderful as Harriet. I’m convinced she is one of the best performers working today. Like the legendary Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, Erivo excels in quiet moments, effortless in just being the character instead of acting or forcing a thought or an emotion. A standout: Minty, now called Harriet since her freedom, returns to the Brodess plantation with the intention of rescuing her sister. Standing right outside the window, Erivo communicates paragraphs using only her face as Harriet watches her sibling, still a slave, do what she’s told. Although only a couple of feet away, they might as well be thousands of miles apart. It is a heartbreaking scenario which wonderfully captures what the movie is about: the value of freedom and why it is worth fighting for.
Another misstep involves the material’s treatment of important figures who helped Harriet in Philadelphia before she became a “conductor” (a person who leads enslaved African-Americans to freedom) in the Underground Railroad: abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a black woman who was born free and runs a boarding house for fugitives. We are provided only superficial details about them—a mistake because if it weren’t for their help, Tubman would not have gotten as far as she did. There are a number of emotional scenes in the second half involving these two characters, but these are unconvincing because we do not get a chance to get to know them outside of introductions.
“Harriet” is a well-intentioned biographical drama, but I feel as though a much better film about Tubman is yet to be made. Her story is already poignant. So just tell like it is—no need to cheapen it with sentimental score, otherworldly visions, and a formulaic three-arc structure.