The most shocking thing about Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet is how long it took to get to the big screen. It is not like there wasn’t plenty of material to pull a story from. Harriet Tubman not only guided slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, but she was also a successful spy, activist, and the first woman to lead an armed troop during war.
Frankly, there have been numerous biopics about men who achieved far less.
To think Jordan Belfort, the financial swindler whose memoir was adapted into Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street got a film before Tubman tells you all you need to know about whose stories get told within the studio system. A point that becomes painfully clear when watching the equally inspiring and frustrating Harriet.
Set in the 1840s, the film begins when Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) is enslaved on a Maryland plantation. Longing to be free like her husband John (Zackary Momoh), Minty is stunned to discover that Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the son of her recently deceased owner, refuses to honour a binding agreement that states Harriet and her parents should be set free once they hit 45 years old.
Unwilling to remain a cog in Gideon’s profitable and unjust wheel, Minty risks her life to make the 100 mile walk north to Philadelphia. Her harrowing journey leads to her meeting William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), abolitionists working to usher slaves to freedom via a network known as the Underground Railroad. It is through these friendships that Minty sees the true strength she carries within.
Assuming the free name Harriet Tubman and aided by visions that she believes are from God, Harriet returns to the dangerous South to lead her family and others to freedom. And that task becomes increasingly harder after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant that Canada became the only safe place to go.
Never bathing in the brutality of slavery, like other films about the era seem to, Harriet celebrates the strength, faith and resilience that Tubman embodied. Anchored by Erivo’s strong performance, Lemmons crafts a heroine who is worthy of the swashbuckling cinematic treatment.
Forced to evade the likes of Gideon and ruthless black bounty hunter Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey), Lemmons’ version of Tubman is a woman who packs a gun and is not afraid to use it. She routinely faces danger head-on and proves the numerous men she encounters wrong in the process. Her clairvoyance – think Tubman’s version of Spidey-sense – adds another intriguing layer to the character’s rich and complex arsenal.
While the ferocity of Tubman’s resolve radiates off the screen, the same cannot be said for the film in its entirety.
Much like Tubman in a key scene, the film can never decide when to pull the trigger on any given idea. Harriet frequently feels at odds with itself. The film constantly betrays its desire to be the thrilling epic Tubman deserves with its longing to also be a prestigious biopic. Tension filled moments are defused by righteous speeches. Thought-provoking commentary linking black women and the power of spirituality, (a theme Lemmons masterfully explores in Eve’s Bayou), gets reduced to plot conveniences to move the story forward.
By making Tubman’s other achievements in life a footnote at the end of the film, Harriet inadvertently paints itself into a corner. Unlike directors such as Quentin Tarantino, who can gleefully rewrite history to his own bemusement, and receive praise doing so, Lemmons is not afforded such luxuries. She must contend with not only the tropes of the numerous slavery-based films that came before, but also the weight of needing to get Tubman’s cinematic treatment right.
As a result, the movie struggles to standout from an overly crowded pack.
Thankfully, Erivo’s performance is the breath of fresh air that keeps Harriet from suffocating under the burden of expectation. She carries the film on her back, with a magnetic energy, determined not to let it fall. Erivo’s work and Lemmons’ sharp cinematic eye ensures that the film remains compelling despite its numerous familiar beats.
While it is impossible to capture the depth of Harriet Tubman’s experience in a single film, it is at least possible to convey the impact of her greatness. This is something that Lemmons achieves in moments when the film really clicks. However, for a woman whose heroic and revolutionary deeds are worthy of the cinematic superhero treatment, Harriet is an adequate, but uneven, origin story.