Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Girl Week 2019: Harriet

It's Day 3 of Girl Week 2019. As always, thanks to everyone who has participated so far. Today, I finally get to a movie that's still in theaters.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
2019. Rated PG-13, 125 minutes.
Cynthia Erivo
Leslie Odom Jr.
Vanessa Bell Calloway
Joe Alwyn
Janelle Monae
Zackary Momoh
Clarke Peters
Vondie Curtis-Hall
Michael Marunde
Eliza Brodess
Omar Dorsey
Henry Hunter Hill

We quickly find out that Harriet, then known as Araminta Ross, or Minty for short (Erivo), is married to a free man, even though she herself was a slave. The rest of her family are also slaves. However, they are trying to hold their master to the word of his predecessor who promised that Minty's mother Rit (Calloway), and the entire family, would be freed on Rit's forty-fifth birthday. She's now fifty-seven. Despite this, but predictably, they are denied. Long story short, Minty can take no more and runs away. In the face of incredible odds, she makes it a hundred miles north to Philadelphia where she finds sanctuary. Desperate to liberate her family, she begins making trips back to the South to rescue them. In the middle of all this, we also find out she is a tremendously spiritual woman and occasionally slips into a trance-like state everyone calls a "spell." These spells often contain some sort of premonition.

I really wanted to love this.

Like many, I've read and heard plenty about Harriet Tubman's exploits. If nothing else, this is a movie filled with Harriet doing amazing things. Unfortunately, she is a little too amazing. Just typing that sentence makes me feel like I'm disrespecting one of the greatest women who ever lived. However, watching the movie gives me the notion that the people involved were going so far out of their way to be reverential of Ms. Tubman that they disrespected her truth.

Let me explain.

As in lots of biopics, Tubman proves to be a character above reproach. The film never finds any faults with her. To be honest, I expected that, so it wasn't that big a deal. I had a bigger issue with the fact that the film makes it seem like she did everything almost entirely on her own. The Underground Railroad was a carefully coordinated effort involving lots of people. Liberating slaves was difficult work requiring lots of planning. Tubman may have been the most successful of all of the Railroad's conductors, but she was no one-woman-show. In the film, whenever she gets the idea to rescue someone, she makes her way south and drags them out by herself. The only help she receives is a boat waiting for her. Even this is not a deal breaker. After all, it's quite exhilarating watching her storm on and off plantations, confidently bark orders, and lead people to freedom.

The step too far is the ways in which the film shows her avoiding would-be captors. Remember those spells? Whenever our heroine got into what seemed to be an impossible bind, she would conveniently have one of those spells, get a premonition, and use it to avoid those after her. Occasionally, she would find herself face to face with bounty hunters, slave owners, and the like. Here's where that deep spirituality comes in. She would say a prayer that would IMMEDIATELY be answered. The Harriet Tubman in this film has as much in common with one of the X-Men's mutants as with the actual woman. I half-expected a montage of her learning how to control her abilities under the tutelage of Professor Xavier. Adding some dramatic flare to history is fine when it's necessary. However, this slice of history is fascinating enough that it doesn't need to make its subject a psychic. Tubman lived one of the most interesting and important lives of any human being we know about. Why ignore all the humanity that went into being who she was in favor of pushing the idea that she couldn't possibly do what she did without supernatural ability?

My dilemma starts because even though we get quite a bit of unnecessary sensationalism, every performance in the film is earnestly given by actors who made their passion palpable. Vanessa Bell Calloway plays Harriet's mom and really goes for it every time she's on the screen. Singer-turned-very capable actress Janelle Monae gives a more subtle, but no less impressive or important portrayal as the fictional Marie Buchanon. Leslie Odom Jr. and Joe Alwyn also do solid work as an ally, and the slave-owner desperately tracking Harriet, respectively. However, none of what they do would matter without the strong work from Cynthio Erivo in the lead role. She holds it all together because she has a magnetism that's tough to deny. Prying one's eyes away from her is a difficult task. There is never a moment when we don't buy her as Harriet Tubman. To be more accurate, there's never a moment we don't buy her as this version of Harriet Tubman. She pours every ounce of herself into the script she was given and pulls out a compelling woman hellbent on freedom. Even as she is doing one impossible thing or another, Erivo keeps things from flying off the rails.

The bottom line is I don't hate this movie, but I'm not particularly fond of it, either. I recognize that there is a fun to it that should please most audiences. Thanks to Erivo's performance, Tubman's spirit is well represented, if not her actual story. It's also a major plus that director Kasi Lemmons streamlines her story enough to give it a smooth, fluid pace. A little over two hours goes by quickly. On the other hand, I don't love Harriet. I was looking for something more fact-based. This truth, her truth, is far too great to have to rely on embellishments. It is possible that I might watch this again and enjoy it a bit more because I will know going in that I'm getting historic fiction, not history. After just this viewing, however, it's fine, but it's not for me.

Day 2 Entries


  1. Charles Xavier would definitely be trying to recruit Harriet. That's still my biggest issue too, the way they handled her spells. I still liked the movie over all and thought Erivo was great, but I wish they would've handled that a different way.

    1. Right. They definitely should've handled that a different way.

  2. I'd heard that this was underwhelming as a whole because of the presentation of Tubman as almost superhuman but I've read enough of the actual history to be able to ferret out where they push the believability factor. I'd also read that the lead actress is quite impressive, so important to something like this, so I'm sure I'll get around to it one of these days. But it sounds like something that can wait so I won't be running to the multiplex to catch it.

    1. For me, it's not about you or I being able to discern fact from fiction, it's about those who can't that will see this movie and accept it as truth. This diminishes the reality of who she was and undermines the substantial difficulties she endured to reach her triumph. Youngsters, or those who are otherwise virgins to her story might be inclined to think "Of course she was able to free all those people," and their reasoning would be along the lines of understanding her as something other than human. That aside, Erivo is fantastic in her role and carries the film as it is.

  3. That's so disappointing. I don't undertand the desire to embellish a history that is pretty damned amazing without that embellishment. Why does this story need to be more than it is, when the actual story is already astonishing?

    Is it habit? Does that explain it?

    1. I wish I had the answers to those questions.

  4. Don't get me started on the Julia Roberts thing. Ugh!

  5. I heard this film was good but I also know it got meh reviews. I enjoyed reading your review and it’s a shame when they make a biopic as if they did everything s8nglehandedly by almost wiggling their nose a la Bewitched. I did hear that the city I live I. Was mentioned...St. Catharines since the end of the Underground Railroad is downtown and now a student residence.

    1. Ah yes, Bewitched. That wouldn't be too far off from what they did with the movie. Very cool piece of info about St. Catharines. Thanks!