Harriet is a look at one of America’s greatest heroes, Harriet Tubman, It also kicks off the season of blatant Oscar-bait movies. The Academy loves period pieces and historical dramas. We could do worse than Harriet. And while I loved Cynthia Erivo’s performance in the lead role, the movie left me just so-so.
Fight and Flight For Freedom
The picture looks to be autobiographical and gave me background into what motivated Harriet. Certainly freedom. But while all enslaved people want self-determination, many stay in servitude. The movie shows us that she tried to make a legal claim for her freedom, and was cruelly rejected by her master. Her husband and daddy were free and she couldn’t bear to be kept away from them or sold down the river.
But where the movie loses me is in a storytelling device to depict her psychic visions or messages from God. Harriet was a very God-fearing woman and believes her mission in life was to not only free herself, but to lead others out of bondage.
Harriet is portrayed as a woman who will be subservient to no one but God. Not only does she escape the slavers and the slave catchers, she also bosses around her family and others as she leads them to freedom. She is a strong woman carrying a heavy burden. But the way all this is portrayed just doesn’t click.
Cynthia’s performance is amazing and draws you in. But it is the script and poor special effects that pull you out. When she is talking to God or receiving visions, it feels like we’re watching an episode of Ghost Hunters. When she calls to the slaves to join her, she sings. This plays to Erivo’s strengths, as she’s a Grammy and Tony winner (in fact, an Oscar would complete her EGOT). But these story devices feel, at a minimum, contrived.
Also, there isn’t much suspense. Suspense is hard to come by in a story where the outcome is well known and long established. But superior films manage to pull it off. This film doesn’t. When she’s running from dogs, crossing a river, or fleeing to Canada, I was always conscious that her escape would succeed.
And for the supporting cast, there were some strong actors doing good performances. Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr. are great. But their roles felt like they were there to support moving the story along than supporting Harriet.
Again, this is still a really good film. Just not great. Cynthia’s performance isn’t just great, it’s superior. That’s a common thing in recent years in biopics. I’m looking at you, Lincoln and Iron Lady.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I’m popping open a bottle of Freedom Lager. It’s made by Freedom Brewery over in the UK. Sure, it’s British and this is an American story, but Britain abolished slavery decades before we did, and without all the bloodshed. Good for them.