Thursday, October 31, 2019

Harriet - Review

The fact that a Harriet Tubman biopic hasn’t existed before the year 2019 is astounding. Her story is remarkable, she remains a celebrated figure, even getting a spot on the $20 bill at some point, yet no movie with Harriet Tubman as the central character exists. Part of the issue lies in Hollywood’s resistance to not only female led ventures, but to black female led ventures almost entirely. But something has changed, and now the world has Harriet, the long-overdue look at the life of one of America’s most important and influential women.

From her escape from slavery through the dangerous missions she led to liberate hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad, the story of heroic abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) is told.

Director Kasi Lemmons knew from the start that picking the right actress for the famed underground railroad conductor would be half the battle. Lemmons found Cynthia Erivo, an actress who carries a natural confidence and tenacity necessary to play Tubman properly. Erivo is the glue that holds the entire picture together, delivering on that toughness with a sense of pain always bubbling beneath the surface.

Unfortunately, most everything else about the film is terribly paint by numbers. Sure, the supporting cast is solid, and I remain a big proponent of putting Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. in everything. The score, when allowed to show through, is pretty great as well, and the costume work isn’t bad either. But the structure and the script really weigh down everything else around it.

If you’ve seen one biopic in your life, you know how this play goes. The formula has been laid out and filled in for years and years by now. The most frustrating problem with Harriet is that a viable, enthralling story could’ve been told about any portion of her life rather than attempting to paint the whole picture. And that’s why her escape from chains, her work rescuing slaves, or even her military leadership all feel slightly glossed over so the film can fit it all in. A more focused narrative could’ve worked wonders to make this story match the lead performance from Erivo.

Harriet is fine. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just fine. And for some biopics, that’s honestly okay. Erivo’s performance stands out, and probably gets her a place in the Best Actress conversation alongside an almost guaranteed slot in Original Song for the end credit music. But everything else feels kind of basic, like an HBO original movie that somehow found its way to the big screen. Again, not an inherently bad thing, but it hardly makes it the tribute that someone like Tubman deserves.

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