I was excited to see Harriet for exactly two reasons: Harriet Tubman is a colossal personal hero of mine and also: Cynthia Erivo. She’s captivated me since this performance on the Stephen Colbert show three years ago and needless to say, I’m a HUGE FAN.
That’s why I was so disappointed watching Harriet. My hype was ready for the cinematography and writing of The Color Purple. Instead, my hype was greeted with a Lifetime movie (no shade to Lifetime movies). Director Kasi Lemmons, best known for Eve’s Bayou, certainly had her hands full in an attempt to fit The Story of Harriet Tubman into a 90-minute picture. (That’s probably why it’s 2 hours and 5 minutes long). But that constraint doesn’t excuse bland moviemaking.
There are scenes in Harriet in which audiences should be able to viscerally feel Harriet’s pain and unrestrained motivation, but they’re squandered by poor camera angles. There is a pivotal moment in Harriet’s life when she decides to return to her place of bondage to free other slaves, but it’s never revealed because of a vanilla script. Oh, just because you throw some “niggers” and “crackers” into a script doesn’t make it any less vanilla. There are at least three unexplained deaths in Harriet, maybe because of poor historical documentation, maybe because nobody thought they were important enough to define, maybe because of a bad script. In the film, her slaveowners are fictional, so we could have had an explanation of a couple of deaths, but nope.
Still, the brightest star of Harriet is Cynthia Erivo, who periodically sings Harriet’s famed escape signals disguised as negro spirituals in order to free over 70 slaves. If Erivo were allowed to belt these songs in proper fashion, Harriet may have been more musical than biopic screenshot, likely improving its watchability. But nobody ever praised Harriet Tubman for her singing–she’s the Moses of the south, after all.
As soon as you like something about Harriet, you’ll watch scenes in which she, quickly catapulted to celebrity abolitionist status, takes advantage of captive audiences to preach against the evil monster that is slavery. In these scenes, Harriet Tubman is quite literally preaching to the choir and each scene appears scripted and phony. In fact, that’s how most of Harriet is delivered: scripted, phony, and even worse, superficial. It’s a basic cable movie. It explains nothing new. It’s obtuse and was written and shot that way. Harriet Tubman is better than this.
Until the day that Harriet Tubman’s image appears on the $20 bill, I hope we’ll have more to memorialize her than Harriet.
See Harriet if you kinda sorta want to teach your kids about slavery and what Harriet Tubman has done for America.
Harriet: 1 of 4 stars.