On paper, Harriet (2019) sounded like a definite winner. Cynthia Erivo is an actress with a career that I am so excited to watch grow, as her performances in Widows (2018) and Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) were some of the most memorable and enjoyable of last year. Thus, her involvement with this important historical figure made me all the more excited for this movie. Unfortunately, I found the movie felt more like a comic book version of Harriet Tubman – and despite Ervio still giving a solid performance, many elements felt cheesy.
Harriet has good moments, but some that just felt out of place
Minty – who will later take the name Harriet Tubman (Erivo) – escapes slavery and decides to dedicate her life to freeing other slaves. Her story is amazing and so important, which is why it is so surprising that another biopic hasn’t been attempted. That is probably why I am mostly disappointed with this attempt.
Harriet – the film, not the person – feels over-stylized, presumably by Directed Kasi Lemmons. To clarify my comic book comment, I do believe that Harriet Tubman was a real-life superhero. She did amazing things, but the film leaned heavily on her “visions” that I’d not known about. Whenever Harriet has a vision in the film (which is more frequent than I would have expected), the look of those scenes just didn’t work for me.
The film also puts a clear antagonist into the picture instead of just the institution of slavery. Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) is essentially Harriet’s Joker in this film. She isn’t just fighting to free the slaves, but dealing with a personal vendetta from her former owner. Again, it’s possible that this is based on fact – but the way it plays in the film felt like a constructed villain for her to fight. That, coupled with the number of times she points her acquired gun at people that seemed random and pointless, really made this feel like a superhero origin story.
Another thing I fear for Erivo’s career is her talent at singing being crammed into movies that don’t totally make sense. Here, she sings to get the attention of people multiple times throughout the film. I can’t imagine that Harriet Tubman, who was almost always in danger as she was freeing slaves, would have opted to sing loudly to get the attention of those she sought to rescue. Of course, I could be wrong again – but this choice also felt so silly and not in line with the type of story I feel Harriet Tubman deserves.
While it probably sounds like I’m very down on the film, it is still engaging and watchable. Erivo is a talent, and the supporting cast does a good job for the most part. It’s the cheesy aspects and leaning on a superhero-type origin story that just didn’t work for me. In the end, Harriet earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating, despite Erivo’s earnest attempt.