It’s a tough task translating the life story of an American hero to film. For decades elementary school kids were often given a truncated glimpse at such people. Everyone has heard the name Harriet Tubman and usually have a broad idea of her accomplishments. This gives a film about her life great opportunities. Audiences can have her deeds fleshed out while getting facts that typically only history buffs would know. It’s surprising that Harriet is the first major Hollywood to delve into Tubman’s life. With that let’s look at the film and the iconic woman whose life inspired it.
Araminta Ross (Cynthia Erivo) has a somewhat optimistic future ahead of her. She is engaged and with some legal precedence should be able to claim her freedom. After her masters deny her this she takes matters into her own hands escaping to freedom. In spite of her new life as Harriet Tubman she cannot live with the knowledge that her family is still enslaved and hatches a plan to get them north. Here we begin to see the typical story of Tubman and her work with the Underground Railroad take shape.
“I’m gonna be free or die.”
After last year’s Bad Times at the El Royale (which made my top 10 of 2018) and Widows I was absolutely enthralled with Cynthia Erivo. In those two films she showed so much talent and I was ready for her to get a lead role. Playing Harriet as a woman who through her faith grows stronger in her morals and bravery Erivo does not disappoint. Every moment with her is engaging doing justice to honoring Tubman’s legacy. On the other hand the rest of the cast is underwritten. Of them Leslie Odom Jr. gets the most to do as William Still. As a predominantly theatre actor I’m unfamiliar with his work, but when given something to do here he is truly captivating.
It’s unfortunate that much of the supporting actors are portraying characters that are composites of real people or outright fabrications crafted by the screenwriters. History during this era was full of sordid people who probably crossed paths with Harriet. Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) is one of these composites, but his mother Eliza (Jennifer Nettles) was real and from records was a tyrannical slave owner. It’s quite confounding they decide to create Gideon when they could’ve made Eliza the main antagonist. This leads to the film’s core problem.
“We’re gonna need a bigger cart.”
The script plays it pretty fast and loose with some of the facts. This is a problem that plagues most biopics. When you craft an antagonist for most stories you want their relationship to the protagonist to be personal. The thing with that is you can make any antagonist personal. Tubman faced off against slave catchers who vehemently hated her. In the film we have a fake person crafted as the big baddie. It also may be my preference, but where the film leaves off in Harriet’s life was where I was intrigued to learn more. Her time during the Civil War as a Union spy was ripe with potential for a film.
Credit to director Kasi Lemmons, she took a surprisingly meager $17 million budget and gave the film a strong look that stays fairly accurate to its time period. She also executed some masterful moments of tension whenever Harriet is on the run or ferrying people to safety.
It is a shame that in spite of Erivo giving her performance everything and the fascinating life of Harriet Tubman this film was a paint by numbers biopic. I hope at some point down the line a studio will put money behind a miniseries to tell a more detailed and well rounded iteration of Tubman’s life.
Overall Score 3/5