Harriet: An Average Abolitionist Anecdote
By: Drew Huddleston
Oscar season is upon us. It’s a glorious two or three months when studios bombard theaters with “deep” and “meaningful” films that commentate on the past, present or future. Movies that reek with self-importance and desperation for academy recognition. Kicking off the line of Oscar-bait films this year is Harriet, a biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons that tells the true story of the Underground Railroad abolitionist Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Ervio).
If there’s one thing that bothers me about historical biopics similar to Harriet, it’s that they are often judged on the merit of the reality the film is trying to portray, rather than on the merit of the film itself. Yes, what Harriet Tubman did was incredibly important to our nation, but that does not automatically Harriet a good film. In this review, I will attempt to judge this film on its own merit, without the bias of history tampering my opinions.
The highlight of the film is certainly Cynthia Ervio’s realization of the acclaimed abolitionist. Star of the 2016 Broadway Musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ervio has previously succeeded at seamlessly blending both ferocity and intimacy into her performances, and Harriet is no exception. The intensity Ervio brings to the role help portray Tubman as a fiery, passionate leader who didn’t just talk the talk, but walked the walk from slave to free woman to liberator. Even with this spirit embodying her character, Ervio is still able to slow things down, and bring to life the spiritual and emotional side of Tubman. This creates a certain intimacy with the character, as the highs and lows of Tubman's journey (both physical and emotional) so effortlessly navigated by Ervio’s interpretation helps the audience feel as though they are traveling the journey with her.
Aside from Ervio, the film’s greatest accomplishments lie in the visual department. Costumes are intricate and detailed, immersing the audience into the harsh world of the film. The sets are authentic, and the scenery is gorgeously shot. However, the lush cinematography is not enough to distract from the often incompetent editing. Scenes often lack a clear sense of space, detracting tension from important scenes. Time in spliced into discontinuous fragments of what could have been emotionally effective moments.
While sequential editing served a major problem, its narrative implications also proved to be a major detriment. For example, a decent chunk of the running time is devoted to Tubman’s slave master, Gideon, and his plot to catch her. It’s a shame so much light is shined on the character, as he mainly serves as a flimsy antagonist for Tubman, and ultimately turns out to be the generic character who gets a big inspirational tell-off from the main character that has become a staple of these historical biopics. Tubman’s decision to travel back to the south and rescue her family--a major turning point in the film’s narrative-- feels extremely sudden. After arriving in the north and acquiring a job and home from Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae’s characters, the film jumps ahead a whole year. We see that Tubman has decided to go back to her old plantation and save her family. The build up to this decision is virtually nonexistent, destroying any emotional weight that the moment could have had. Even the ending to the film feels sudden, as we jump from Harriet confronting Gideon almost immediately to her leading a platoon and African-American soldiers in the Civil War. While it’s undeniably awesome to see Harriet Tubman facing down a bunch of racist hicks with a musket in hand and army behind her, these final moments of the film feel detached from the rest of the film’s narrative.
Sure, these mishaps can often detach the viewer from the experience of the film, but fortunately Harriet has many devices that help to pull the viewer back in. Despite the ineffective editing, the stakes set by the film help create some tense moments as Harriet sneaks back and forth between the North and South. This was made very apparent by the anxious squirming and nervous breathing of the audience in my show. Also impressive was the restraint of drawing focus from Harriet to the slavery side of the story. While there are a few instances where we see the various scars of slavery embedded in the bodies of the characters, it doesn’t detract from the main focus of the film. These instances strengthen Harriet’s motivation, as we understand what people are escaping from, and why Harriet wants to get them away from it. Yet, the most engrossing aspect of Harriet (aside of Ervio of coarse) is its larger themes. While one could see the film as a story of determination or sacrifice, I found it apparent that the filmmakers intended to tell a story of faith. Throughout her journey, Tubman was motivated by God, telling people that she felt called by him to do what she did. And upon doing them, she attributes her success right back to him. She trusts in God, and we see God guiding her, albeit in an odd way that bears more resemblance to a psychic episode from The Shining. Nevertheless, the religious side to the film proved to be far more effective in its subtlety than other of the forced moments.
By no means is Harriet a bad movie. Sure, it’s plagued by some poor narrative choices and editing, but with an outstanding performance from Ervio and strong emotions fueling the story, Harriet makes for an at times strong, and at other superficial biopic.