“Harriet” is a new film biography that tells of the life of Harriet Tubman. It’s an amazing story, and one that people need to hear.
This is because, like too many important black figures in history, her story has either been told in too little detail, or with not enough accuracy, or not told at all.
At a minimum, the movie earns high marks for its attempts at historical accuracy in telling her story.
Such as crediting her as a key “conductor” of the Underground Railroad that created escape routes for slaves and with her personally leading more than 70 slaves to freedom.
The film shows us the woman who was so strong and determined in her work that during the Civil War she was employed as a Union Army spy and then became the first woman to lead an armed expedition.
Not only the first woman in the Army, but a woman who was a freed slave taking the lead? Amazing.
“Harriet” chooses to focus on the events in her life prior to the Civil War, beginning with her own solo flight to freedom — 100 miles from her Maryland slave owner’s farm to Philadelphia — which was considered impossible for most anyone at the time, much less a woman.
The movie concentrates on that issue — that this was a woman taking control of her life during, as we are told more than once, “dangerous times” — and that is an issue to be celebrated.
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) honors Tubman, but she falls short of making a great film about her.
Lemmons wants to appreciate Tubman, but her story follows a strictly by-the-numbers biopic treatment with a narrow woman-on-a-mission narrative.
“Harriet” shows us that Tubman was essentially an action-hero straight out of the movies, but it doesn’t show enough of what’s in her head or her heart.
These decisions also undercut the very lively performance of British actress and Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo in the title role.
It’s the kind of film biopic we get too often, hitting the historical high points and giving us surface emotions for particular moments and then wrapping up “the rest of the story” with notes to read before the credits roll.
On the other hand, it is also the kind of sanitized version of slavery’s horrors (rated PG-13) that the entire family can attend.
The narrative is broken up by too many “important speeches” by Harriet, all saying the same thing her character shows us for two hours: Slavery is a sin, I’m following God’s voice, and I don’t have time for anything else but going back to free my friends and family, too.
It makes for a very limited representation, as if she is a soldier following orders from God, which makes her into, essentially, a saint. She is perfect.
It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is also in adoration mode.
Like an anti-slavery leader played by Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) and Janelle Monae as a free black woman who helps train Harriet for her missions, who have seemingly important roles that are reduced to “Harriet, I can’t believe how amazing you are” parts.
Erivo broke out in 2018 in “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale” and showed a physicality that made her an excellent choice to play a woman who will have to evade capture in outdoor situations, from sprinting from bloodhounds to jumping into a river and nearly drowning.
She is asked to sing — Erivo has great pipes — during the film, but it’s surprising how many times she does, especially in scenes in which the singing feels oddly tacked on.
Almost as odd as some of the very chic fashion choices for her character on some of her missions, but it’s kind of cool, too, in one of the most gorgeous movies of 2019, from the cinematography to the film score and more.
It’s an average movie overall, with some good history about a remarkable woman who went from slavery to freedom to hero.
But I’d bet that there’s a better cinematic version of Harriet’s story to come in the future.
I’d be willing to bet at least $20.