Ever since Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmons has foregrounded the need for black adolescents to realize the importance of their influence and existence in a society fundamentally unjust to them. This specific thematic concern may situate her as uniquely qualified to tell the story of African American liberator Harriet Tubman, but breaking free from the familiar beats of its adversity narrative presents its own barriers for Harriet the film. Dubbed Minty, the young Harriet Tubman (played as an adult by Cynthia Erivo) grew up as a slave on a farm in Maryland, and the film begins with her initial escape from slavery and proceeds all the way until her eventual status as a freedom fighter by means of the Underground Railroad. The early years of Harriet’s plight indeed muster a profound emotional resonance, but one welcomes the point at which she shifts into Highwaywoman mode, when there is at least an attempt to politically contextualize the true-story developments.
While much of the discourse seems a bit tame and unspecific compared to something like Lincoln, for instance, Spielberg’s film had less to contend with than Harriet, which has to marry its complex sociohistorical significance with a more emotionally wrought personal narrative and altogether disparate point of view. Lemmons does an admirable job, but as both political discourse and as a story of overcoming injustice, Harriet is less remarkable than it should be. More interesting elements of Tubman’s later life, relegated to captions in the closing credits, are left unexplored, while the relationship between she and her slave master Gideon (Joe Alwyn telegraphing a thoughtful if rigid view of masculine inadequacy) feels more than a tad forced. The standouts lie in the work of two established, consummate professionals: the legendary John Toll brings a real flair to the film with his painterly compositions, while Erivo herself gauges Harriet’s arduous arc supremely well. Although this effort from Universal should serve as encouragement that major studios can still greenlight important adult dramas that speak to and about real people, Harriet is more of a serviceable tribute to its subject’s heroism than a rounded exploration of her person and legacy.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.