Director: Kasi Lemmons
Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom, Jr.
Harriet Tubman is one of the great American heroes and a beacon of black history, having devoted much of her adult life to the freeing of slaves along the Underground Railroad in the mid 1800’s. She was a lion. American cinema – particularly that brought to us via Hollywood – has long overlooked great African American women, and only in recent years have we started to see a redress of this imbalance.
The perception seems to be that such films are a hard sell; a strange and backward view considering the success and acclaim brought to pictures like the glossy Hidden Figures. As black artistry starts claiming more and more of the cultural spotlight, we should hope for more opportunities to see this history and these heroes celebrated on screen.
It is very much in that spirit that Kasi Lemmons brings us Harriet, a biopic that tilts hard toward the prestige pictures of old. Indeed, there’s a knowing sense of 50’s-style melodrama about much of the execution here. It feels as though Lemmons is offering us a vintage staple, but from a perspective that would have been all-but-impossible in the Hollywood of old.
As if Tubman’s story wasn’t enough of a draw, Lemmons has a further two aces up her sleeve. Cynthia Erivo rightly caught a lot of attention last year for her standout supporting performances in both Bad Times At The El Royale and Widows. She plays Tubman here, imbuing her with the kind of pluck and gumption we might otherwise expect to see in a Marvel origin story. The other ace is Janelle Monáe; one of the artists of our times, who has a pleasing if relatively minor role as Philadelphia businesswoman Marie Buchanon; friend to Harriet in a few of her hours of need.
We first meet Harriet before she’s had the opportunity to give herself the free name by which she became (in)famous. Born in slavery with the name Araminta Ross and known as ‘Minty’ for short, the first act of Lemmons’ film sets up the situation and means of her initial escape from bondage; a feat of endurance that could’ve been mined for enough material to support its own feature. Harriet has loftier ambitions, however, and a sprightly second act details how she became a Robin Hood-style myth, feared and reviled among Louisiana slave-owners (given face here mainly by Joe Alwyn’s weasly son-of-a-landowner Gideon Brodess).
This breezy picture – which just clips two hours but feels a hell of a lot lighter than that – goes further still, with a third act that lengthens the distances, ups the stakes and paves the way for the Civil War. It is during this third phase that the mood seems to pointedly shift from breast-beating melodrama to out-and-out vengeful romp. The film is imbued with a sense of pomp and righteousness that almost recalls the comic book bravura of Tarantino’s own Django Unchained; albeit restrained for the PG-13 market. Harriet becomes mythic, and so too does her depiction.
It’s an intriguing and not wholly unpleasant development in a film that from the off shows little interest in modesty. Terence Blanchard’s heavy-handed score tips us off early that this is going to be a relatively broad piece. He’s there in the great tradition of the melodrama, steering us down emotional trenches, just as he underscores the triumph and inspirational vigilance as Tubman’s legacy only grows.
And what is wrong with that? I’ve seen far less warranted acts of hagiography projected onto a cinema screen. Lemmons translates her intent to us through the staging of her work. Puff piece this may be, but when your subject thwarts the will of such vile figures as slavers, such a sense of pride is tough to bemoan. I can’t help but come back to the feeling that Harriet is intended as a retort to films of its ilk of half a century ago; using the mise en scene of the past to direct the movies toward a new future.
Harriet struggles. The ambition of the screenplay feels like a rod for its own back, at times, and there’s a sense of cliff-noting from squeezing in so many exploits and adventures. Sometimes the years skip by a little too quickly. In addition, the subject of Tubman’s religious divinity is laid on a little thick, almost to the point where her visions from the Almighty take away from the woman’s own agency. Perhaps the woman was as miraculously intuitive as depicted here. The tendency to go big as demonstrated in other aspects of the picture isn’t always the most successful route.
But what could’ve been a musty biopic of miseries instead rolls out like a rallying cry against oppressors, and Erivo adds another feather to her cap in the process. She’s a lead.