There is power in a name.
Early into the film Harriet, not long after its lead makes the 100-mile escape from slavery to freedom on her own, the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) asks Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) whether she’ll take on a new name. Erivo’s eyes scan the room, as if trying to conjure the right answer out of the air: “Harriet Tubman,” she says, offering up a name we’ve certainly heard before. It’s a moment meant to make the heart swell — to commemorate the fact that she holds her destiny in her hands now — but instead, it lands with a thud, with Erivo communicating a resolute hopefulness and little else. Despite the talent in front of and behind the camera, this scene, like so many others in this mostly by-the-numbers biopic, plays out like a hollow turning point, stripped of the weight we know it could possess.
Harriet unfurls like a beefed-up Wikipedia entry as it charts the titular character’s journey to freedom, from the compound of her former slave master (played with bland malevolence by Joe Alwyn) to the echelons of the Underground Railroad, where she becomes a conductor of high regard — so high she eventually helps to command an armed expedition in the Civil War. The script hits the notes (triumphs of will, rousing speeches, obvious turns of fortune) we’ve come to expect from a film genre angling for award traction, but it’s bloated with clunky, expository dialogue. The score is increasingly saccharine, approaching Hallmark movie territory; the visual landscape of the film is brimming with basic shot decisions. In the end, Harriet demonstrates none of the curious, perspicacious abilities of Kasi Lemmons, who burst onto the scene with the beguiling Southern tale, Eve’s Bayou. But Lemmons does add to the story of Harriet’s life in one less expected way — namely by making her a psychic.
A project like this might not be saved by its performances, but it can be complicated by them. Cynthia Erivo proved to have a spiky presence in Widows, having already gained acclaim in The Color Purple on Broadway. But in Harriet, Erivo delivers a performance free of the fierceness for which she’s become known. Harriet understands its lead is remarkable, framing her as such with amber lighting and swelling music every chance it gets. But Harriet never feels like a fully formed human being with all the doubts and desires that come with that distinction. In this retelling, Harriet’s psychic visions (not simply her ferocious faith) guide her to freedom, nearly casting her as a magical Negro figure. I’ve always been interested in how people behave alone, in the dark, far away from prying eyes — it’s there we reveal so much of ourselves, and biopics should usher us into these private moments of grand lives. But Harriet is too interested in framing Harriet Tubman, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating people in American history, as a superhero, rather than an extraordinary member of humanity.
Despite its issues, there are a few intriguing threads. The brutality of slavery is seen primarily in the aftermath of violence otherwise shown briefly onscreen — bodies only appear burned, whipped, and scarred after the fact. This choice sets Harriet apart from other historical films about the era, known for their unflinching approach to displaying the ills of a loathsome institution that it can be argued is necessary for showing the truth of the matter. Harriet also pays attention to the tension between blacks born in freedom and those born enslaved, which manifests in the tender relationship between Harriet and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a proprietor of high standing who was born into freedom and has had to unravel her own prejudices and blind spots as a result.
Harriet brings up a lot of questions about the purpose of slavery epics. Are they meant to entertain or to challenge? What is the purpose of a glossy, superheroic rendition of one of America’s most terrifying sins? How informative or realistic does it need to be? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Harriet only highlights how this genre can fail despite the so-called important nature of the picture and a talented black director at the helm.