It says something about us as a society that the story of Harriet
Tubman hasn’t been shouted from the rooftops for generations, let alone had her story be the basis of a feature film. Her legacy, her compassion and her quest for good made her a shining light in a world gone mad and, some 170 years later, her story is as prevalent today as it has ever been and right now, we could do with her to sort of some of the present mess. Thankfully, we finally have a film to celebrate her legacy and to be given a good history lesson but as a piece of cinema, it’s a bit of a strange beast.
The slave trade is at its peak, with African American’s across the USA continuing to lose hope of a better tomorrow as their masters reap the rewards. Araminta Ross (Cynthia Erivo) was born into slavery and after countless whippings and beatings, takes a blow to the head that brings her strange visions and a unique connection to God. In 1849, she escapes the clutches of her latest master and flees, alone, to Philadelphia where she begins working with many other activists with links to the Underground Railroad and sets to free her family and other slaves across the country before the brewing civil war breaks out.
Brought to the screen by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet aims for the heights of Selma or 12 Years A Slave but rarely threatens to come close, despite all of the best intentions. What transpires is an historical drama biopic that tries to do far too much, to run before it can leap, and with such a frenzied, sporadic nature to it nothing really sticks and much of the characters and their inner motivations get lost in a hurried narrative. Indeed, the misjudged, overbearing score from Terence Blanchard (BlackkKlansman), is the antithesis of film itself: overbearing when it needs to be relaxed and thoughtful; loud and booming when it should be quiet and methodical, it all feels too safe to really blossom.
But despite its narrative inconsistencies and tonal malaise, it’s anchored beautifully by a truly wonderful turn by Cynthia Erivo in the lead, a performance of such heart and soul that she is bound to be in the awards conversation in the coming months. Stern, forceful but full of life, Erivo is a true marvel here – and, in a strange way, she kind of it is the “Marvel” sense of the word – and lights up the screen throughout. Take notice of some superb support too from Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jnr as well as a smarmy turn from Joe Alwyn that is both creepy and a tad pantomime-y in its excessiveness.
Tubman’s story is legendary and as a history lesson on her achievements and her fight for right and just, Harriet is an important film but as a piece of stirring, rousing, emotional cinema it doesn’t quite work and while it’s best intentions are as noble as she was, this doesn’t quite do her the justice that she deserves.
Biography, Drama | USA, 2019 | 12A | 22nd November 2019 (UK)| Universal Pictures | Dir.Kasi Lemmons | Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, Clark Peters,