REVIEW: Acting & script rescue ‘Harriet’ from uneven, inaccurate storytelling

Promotional artwork for ‘Harriet’ courtesy of Focus Features.

Hollywood is your enemy.

Trust in the history.

Based on the remarkable life of Harriet Tubman, Harriet suffers from a basic approach to the retelling of its story but manages to offer tear-jerking performances and key lines to keep it from staying underground.

The film is directed by Kasi Lemmons, written by Gregory Allen Howard, and stars Cynthia Erivo in the titular role. The film depicts a young Amirinta “Minty” Ross, as she escapes slavery in mid-1800 Maryland and subsequently becomes one of the most prominent and successful workers on the Underground Railroad. Minty eventually gives herself the name Harriet Tubman following her arrival in Philadelphia and is dubbed as “Moses” by eager slave catchers in the South. The personality, hard work, and spirit of the protagonist is captured beautifully in the film, one of the most important features to achieve in a biographical movie.

Erivo elevates the movie to a new level with a groundbreaking performance. She embodies Tubman both explicitly and subtly, as she should. Her confident affirmations of faith in God and her genuine care for family and friends is showcased through her unwavering voice, stern facial expressions, and decisive movements. Furthermore, she says mouthfuls nonverbally, relying on looks and quick motions to speak to the personality of her real-life inspiration. Little things like jerking her hand away from William Still during her picture offer a glimpse into Tubman’s behaviors, giving her character a more realistic persona. She conveys an emotion in her final monologue as well, allowing African-American viewers to actually feel like she is fighting for them, speaking for them, saving them. 

Unfortunately, this moving performance is weighed down by a lack of cohesion in other areas, like the structure of the story.

Director Kasi Lemmons has remained relatively under the radar in terms of notable filmography, though her technique has been described as “creative” by several critics in the past. Her films tend to feature African-American actors in the leading roles, and range from dramas to biopics, like Harriet. In this film in particular, Lemmons utilizes an interesting form of foreshadowing throughout. At frequency in the movie, Harriet seems to get “visions from God,” most commonly of what appears to be slaves running and a glistening body of water. Accompanied by a bright, silver filter and fast-paced music, the viewer is left wondering whether a flashback or nod to the future is being displayed, as it causes vital parts of the film to seem uneven, interrupted by the short, unmentioned montages. It eventually comes full circle, however, as the film closes by encapsulating suggested images and events that somewhat make the story of Harriet Tubman complete.

The personality, hard work, and spirit of the protagonist is captured beautifully in the film, one of the most important features to achieve in a biographical movie.

Promotional artwork for ‘Harriet’ courtesy of Focus Features.

Where the film falls short is delivering a true and accurate portrayal of the life of its titular character. Important events in the life of Tubman are omitted in the movie, such as the fact that Harriet and her brothers escaped together at first but came back when the men had second thoughts, before Harriet decided to make the journey alone. Including details like these would allow more of an insightful and thoughtful viewing experience, creating a clear determination in Tubman, that the viewer could not only sense but also see, unfold.

The plot and storytelling may also be to blame for the poorly structured reenactment of history. There seems to be a greater emphasis on the visuals and how much emotion is created in a cinematic way, rather than focusing on the delivery and impact of the plot points. Little explanation is given to certain characters and events, leaving those watching spending more time trying to piece together confusing relationships rather than following along with the story. 

The addition of stereotypical romantic drama tropes and music that sometimes leans into a comical state distract from the seriousness and importance of the story at hand. Further, there is a consistent lack of historical integration, with real-life details being clumped together in certain parts rather than being seamlessly included as normal parts of the dialogue. 

In essence, the film feels more like an action thriller than a biopic.

If viewed with a Hollywood lens, this film would easily be spectacular. It still is, just in less important ways. It has true movie-land nature, with two-minute montages to cover several-year-spans being placed in numerous spots throughout. Like The Greatest Showman in 2017, more attention is directed to the visual experience and whether or not the viewer is in tears by the end, and often loses the magnitude and beauty of the true story it is trying to tell. Though the areas of focus exceed expectations, the film was created with a focal point — and this focal point must be the center of all things included.

Though plagued with the euphoric wonder of Hollywood, Harriet makes a valiant and applause-worthy effort at paying tribute to one of the most important historical figures of all time.

Harriet is rated PG-13.

Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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