Harriet… May Not Be The Harriet You Wants But She’s The Only One We Gots.
Harriet Leader of the Underground Trail Mix
So yeaaaaa, that Harriet Tubman film, a project that was originally in the hands of Viola Davis where it should have stayed, is finally due north to the big screen this weekend. And while this may not be the fierce, shotgun toting, Union spying, underground railroading breaker of chains, it’s the only Harriet film we’ve got. So you'll just have to deal with it --just like you'll have to deal with the fact that Cynthia Erivo's talented ass isn't going anywhere. Surprisingly, a safe and basic telling of the revered historical figure leaves all the interesting details in the past sharing nothing new to anyone with a paragraph's worth of required Black History Month reading knowledge on the heroine.
You can practically see through the thinly layered script that Kasi Lemmons and Greg Allen Howard shopped around Hollywood for almost a decade exploiting the talents of Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae, and Leslie Odom Jr. It’s an un-extraordinary softcore slave story that makes any strategy used to develop the Underground Railroad about as complex as a relay race. Simultaneously, it turns Harriet "Minty" Tubman into a superhero who’s powers get yada-yada’d through montages, surface deep character development, and Negro Magic.
I pray we get a Harriet Demon Slayer film next.
What it Got Right
It would be irresponsible to ignore things the film showed up for, one of them being the cinematography. Scenes where mysticism overtakes Harriet are pretty much gorgeous. Who knew witnessing a slave running from a gang of crackers and hound dogs through unforgiving woods and rushing rivers under endless stars could be shot so beautifully. Hollywood doesn’t have the best reputation for capturing darker skin tones, then Barry Jenkins showed them Moonlight. Here, John Toll uses his Cloud Atlas experience to Jupiter Ascend the audience through slave escapes into the Philadelphia free lands.
The costume designers had a chance to flex big muscle too in scenes filled with black Abolitionists, some you may even recognize hiding in the foreground unacknowledged. Janelle Monae floats throughout the film in scene snatching dresses, using a well crafted accent. Leslie Odom Jr. is tailor made for a Black History biopic. Cynthia captures the small part of Harriet she was provided through her mannerisms, emotionally dynamic range, and songbird of the south vocals. There’s enough here to keep audiences distracted, that’s for sure.
Without diving too deep into this for fear of never being able to think happy thoughts again, most of the actors you'll recognize on screen deserved a better film than this and they show you why. Moving on...
It’s a hard no for me dawg.
When people said they wanted a Harriet Tubman film after seeing Aisha Hinds in Underground, the sentiment was pretty clear. Black people wanted to see a film that Nate Parker promised and failed to deliver in Birth of a Nation but about Harriet Tubman. A Black woman on screen freeing her self in addition to dozens upon dozens of other slaves motivated by the fear of capture yet guided by the voice of God and a firm grip on her shotgun looking for a reason to use it, and that was only the start. Sadly, that’s where this film peaks. As Kriss says in our review, the most interesting parts of a film should not be in the captions right before the end credits. That was the movie you were supposed to make, the one about the one they called Moses, and Harriet the Spy and Harriet the Humanitarian.
The Spoiler Review for Harriet is now up for Premium members.