Say what you want about Cynthia Erivo, but she has had a remarkable rising career. From the humble beginnings of Chewing Gum and Mr. Selfridge to the elevated heights of Steve McQueen’s Widows to Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, she has a gift that distinctively stands her out in the field – act and sing. In Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, she utilises both talents with aplomb.
It’s somewhat surprising that we’ve had to wait until 2019 to get a film about Harriet Tubman considering her historical efforts. In her first leading role, Erivo plays the legendary figure – the renowned abolitionist, freedom fighter and political activist who escaped slavery on her plantation field and came back to liberate as many black slaves as she could. In this cinematic day and age where it is dominated by comic book heroes, this film proves that not all heroes wear capes.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons, alongside fellow co-writer Gregory Allen Howard, pays respectful homage to the real-life icon and revolutionary. Like any historical film based on a true story, it will always take liberties with its references. Some are not given the depth to make those changes actively resonate. But it does just enough to keep all of its elements watchable.
Harriet taps into the same synergy that’s found in Lemmons’ previous work Eve’s Bayou, harnessing the poetic imagery to symbolise Harriet’s resolute faith in God, thanks to John Toll’s cinematography. You get the impression that Lemmons found some kindred perspective that allows the film to take on board various cinematic tones that moves between the conventional and the surreal. But when it does find some grounded vocal points, Lemmons shows an apt eye in shining a light on black cultural activism in America on the brink of change – a rare visual statement in comparison to the typical stereotypes of black characters on the screen.
And again, Erivo navigates that hurdle to bring it to the forefront, vulnerably connecting through some of Harriet’s difficult challenges, especially during periods of re-adjustment as a free woman after her escape or understanding the duelling reality between slave owned blacks and black people who were lucky enough to be born free. It’s recognised through song to notify the slaves to come with her on a perilous journey to freedom. But she also lives up to the physical demands of the role which could give Tom Cruise a run for his money for the amount of running she does on screen.
Harriet is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, Terence Blanchard’s score plays a flirtatious game between soul-stirring and over-the-top distraction, which unfortunately drowns out some of the prominent scenes. But overall, it is epically over-stylised without re-emphasising the emotive choices it was making, reducing the film to formulas and clichés. Now, there is nothing wrong with formula – it helps ease viewers into the drama. But for something that has all the hard-hitting bearings, whenever there were opportunities to venture into that path, it pulls away back into its comfortable space.
I get why; Harriet is not trying to reignite the pain. The essence of slavery has already been pushed to extraordinarily traumatic limits, famously in the Oscar-winning vein of 12 Years a Slave. But the subject is lightly covered in charting the emotional struggle Harriet faces or aspects of her humanity. Regardless, Cynthia Erivo acts her socks off, with grace, dignity, courage, and empowerment that elevates her to a ‘black superhero’ status, but the limitation of the script can only extend so far in clouding over its shortcomings.
Harriet forgets that everyone is human, something like Ava DuVernay’s Selma explored with David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, examining both his celebrity status as well as his frailties. Unfortunately, Harriet is not afforded such luxury in its depth. Other characters end up being stereotypical figures used as antagonistic obstacles. And something as prominent as the Underground Railroad network which saved countless lives (lifted by the charisma of Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still and Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon) is given a broad stroke treatment.
And the extent of that problem lies in the film using a generic tapestry to cover the entirety of Harriet Tubman’s life in a ‘by the numbers’ biopic. Some aspects are inspired, profound and heartbreaking that would suitably warm up the tear ducts. Other times, you wished the film was more time-specific where moments of tension is lost amongst its editing choices.
It doesn’t mean that Harriet as a film doesn’t have value – the merit alone is worth telling, especially in this cinematic climate. But it also represents a missed opportunity to delve deeply into an aspect of history that’s simply not taught enough.
So, what you eventually end up with is something safe, solid and serviceable. To reiterate, that doesn’t make it a bad film, but an extra push would have moved it to that masterpiece status that it was searching for. Kasi Lemmons shows she still has the ‘magical touch’ in finding the heart and soul of the story, and that conveyance is brought to life through Erivo’s magnetic performance. And trust me, that actress is going places.
Dir: Kasi Lemmons
Scr: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Prd: Debra Martin Chase, Gregory Allen Howard, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
DOP: John Toll
Music: Terence Blanchard
Runtime: 125 mins
Harriet will be released in UK cinemas on November 22nd.