'Harriet': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Righteous to a fault.
11/1/2019

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, the courageous Underground Railroad conductor who became a hero of the anti-slavery movement, in Kasi Lemmons' bio-drama.

The Obama administration's plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill remains in limbo thanks to the stalling of the Trump government, but Kasi Lemmons' lustrous epic treatment of the legendary freedom fighter's life etches an iconic portrait for better or worse, resonating more as a symbolic figurehead than a nuanced flesh-and-blood character. Cynthia Erivo is a powerful physical presence in the title role and Harriet recounts an important chapter in American history too long neglected by Hollywood. If the movie doesn't escape the hagiographic trap of the reverent biopic, it nonetheless will move audiences with a taste for large-canvas inspirational drama.

Lemmons, who first turned heads with her 2004 indie debut, the poetic Southern Gothic Eve's Bayou, doesn't exactly tread lightly here. That tendency is evident from the very first widescreen frame, as Terence Blanchard's lush score swells into soaring uplift mode over a rain-soaked field, aggressively signaling emotional cues before we've encountered a single character. The use of music is often heavy-handed, one exception being the thrill of hearing Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" over a montage of daring Underground Railroad rescues.

The screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons begins in 1849 with the brutal experience that sparks the freedom-or-death fire in the belly of the slave then known as Minty. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh), a free man, has obtained legal documentation to verify that under the terms of a will left behind by the great-grandfather of Maryland plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), Minty, her siblings and their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) should have been freed more than a decade ago.

John states his case calmly and respectfully, explaining that they want to start a family and wish for their children to be born free. But Brodess rips up the paper and dismisses them with indignation, telling his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) he should have sold the troublesome Minty years ago.

Having nursed him through typhoid as a child, Minty holds a strange position for Gideon, mingling possession with obligation and devotion. He's unsettled by the intensity of her prayers, and evidence that she communicates directly with God is conveyed throughout the movie in black-and-white vision sequences revealing flashes of the future to her. But a sudden change in the family's circumstances causes Gideon to act belatedly on his father's advice and put Minty up for sale. The prospect of being separated from her family is the impetus she needs to make an escape attempt, but she refuses to let John run with her, arguing that capture will cost him his freedom.

From then on through much of its two-hour running time, Harriet becomes a chase movie, with action sequences driven by Blanchard's propulsive score and John Toll's agile camera. There are brief emotional markers on the journey, especially early on, as Minty says farewell to her mother in the field by singing a traditional spiritual, embraces her father (the great Clarke Peters, underused) and receives guidance from the local Reverend (charismatic veteran Vondie Curtis Hall), whose church serves as a waystation for fugitive slaves. But despite Erivo's tenacity in the role, the drama feels more stately and impressive than urgent and affecting.

It's never uninvolving though, and the script does a solid job of tracing the formation of a courageous freedom fighter out of a scared runaway. That process happens once Minty arrives in Philadelphia and marks her liberation by choosing a new name, combining those of her mother and husband to become Harriet Tubman. She meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who records her history along with those of other fugitive slaves; and Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monae), an elegant business owner born in freedom who sets Harriet up in a paying job as a domestic worker.

It's Marie who gives her a gun, teaches her how to pass for a free woman and secures her fake ID papers a year later when Harriet insists on taking the dangerous 100-mile journey back to Maryland to bring John with her to the free state of Pennsylvania. That doesn't go as planned, but she ends up shepherding a party of eight to freedom, including her brothers. Five of them come from the financially struggling Brodess plantation, described by Gideon as "three bucks, a female and foal" — words that underscore the horrific thinking of the time and place, that slaves were akin to livestock.

Lemmons introduces a welcome strain of low-key humor as Harriet's rescue missions become more audacious even while slave-owners grow more ruthless in their bids to stop the swelling tide of runaways. The influx in Philadelphia gets to be so numerous that William can barely record their histories fast enough. Harriet's success rate prompts him to introduce her to the secret organizing committee of the Underground Railroad, making her an official conductor, and her exploits make her notorious in the South, initially as an unidentified "slave stealer" dubbed Moses.

It's a gripping story, for the most part efficiently told. But the frequent interludes of religious rapture, during which Harriet often senses danger in time to change course and get her charges to safety, contribute to the sense of invulnerable sainthood that keeps the central character at a slight remove.

When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, allowing for escapees to be tracked and captured even in Northern states, Harriet's rescue trips extend from 100 miles to 600 as Canada becomes the only safe haven. But the script becomes preachy around this point, indulging in big movie-ish speeches designed to reinforce Harriet's valiant sense of purpose and proto-feminist spirit. Also, once Gideon learns the true identity of the liberator raising the hackles of the white Southerners and causing them to place blame on him, a confrontation is set up as an inevitability.

That encounter doesn't pack the dramatic weight to provide a fully satisfying payoff, and Harriet's involvement as an armed assault leader during the Civil War is given somewhat rushed handling. The unprecedented nature of her military role is conveyed mainly in onscreen text at the end of the movie, along with her subsequent dedication to the women's suffrage movement.

British actress Erivo, who won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, hits all the requisite notes of flintiness and selfless bravery born of suffering, determination and rage. But the movie bathes Harriet in the hallowed light of nobility without providing much access to what she's thinking and feeling; its heavy bias toward action scenes leaves too little room for character study. Tubman is an extraordinary figure with a unique place in American history, but although Lemmons' film is an admirable bid to do this giant of the anti-slavery movement justice, it's a monument to her heroism rather than a full-blooded incarnation.

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Debra Martin Chase Productions
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hill, Tim Guinee, Janelle Monae, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jennifer Odessa Nettles, Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, Michael Marunde, Tory Kittles, Zackary Momoh
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriter: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Producers: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard
Executive producers: Josh McLaughlin, Shea Kammer, Nnamdi Asomugha, Bill Benenson, Pen Densham, John Watson, Kristina Kendall, Elizabeth Koch, Charles D. King
Director of photography: John Toll
Production designer: Warren Alan Young
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Music: Terence Blanchard
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Casting: Kim Coleman
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

Rated PG-13, 125 minutes