HomeMovies'Harriet' Review: Moving and Effective Despite Some Corny Moments

‘Harriet’ Review: Moving and Effective Despite Some Corny Moments

Photo Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Watching the trailer for Harriet, it feels unlikely that it could be anything but a corny embarrassment. Seemingly stunt-cast with Tony winners and pop stars, with big speeches and a melodramatic original song performed by Cynthia Erivo, who plays the titular former slave, it looks like failed the Oscar bait biopic of Harriet Tubman destined for Lifetime rather than art house theaters. To be sure, there are some corny moments in writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ film, but it’s also a surprisingly effective period drama with strong performances, lovely artistic flourishes and a handling of slavery and racism that feels like a rebuke to modern audiences who have willfully forgotten just how horrible America can be.

When the film starts in Maryland in 1849, Tubman is still a slave while her husband, Johnny (Zackary Momoh), is free, but when they go to her master (Mike Marunde) with a letter from a lawyer requesting that their children be born free, not even the affection the master’s son, Gideon (an utterly detestable Joe Alwyn) can protect her. Fearing being sold further south, Tubman escapes alone to freedom in Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist and journalist, and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a confident society woman who was born free, who help her to become one of the most successful “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.

Though the help Tubman receives from both strangers and friends like William and Marie, is integral to her work in the film, her most important tool in freeing first herself and then others from slavery comes in the form of the “spells” she believes are messages from God. Though the real-life Tubman actually had incidents she believed were divinely inspired, as used in the film, they can be too convenient of a plot device — particularly considering how often it’s used. It’s a little difficult not to scoff at scenes where a “spell” knocks Tubman out just before she’s going to lead a group into Gideon and his men, or when one hits her during a particularly dark moment just after she asks God what she should do next simply because there’s something corny in the way that Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard deploy that device.

Indeed, some of the film’s weakest moments come thanks to ham-fisted dialogue or character beats only made worse by Terence Blanchard’s overdone score. While Erivo is a strong performer who can play the sincerity of those moments without slipping into camp, not every actor fares as well. Though Jennifer Nettles as Gideon’s bigoted mother only gets away with going full camp because her character is supposed to be so awful, Odom and Monáe have so little to do that they feel a bit like caricatures. And while some of that characterization is meant to throw the horror of Tubman’s past in sharper relief, by privileging her character arc over all else, other elements can feel like they’re given short shrift.

Perhaps the biggest victim of that decision is historical accuracy. While the visions Tubman sees in the film are at least based in reality, strictly in terms of historical accuracy, Harriet may alter history too much to fit its narrative beats for some. Where the film depicts Tubman as being well into her time as a “conductor” by the time the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passes, in real life, she didn’t really begin until after its passing. Where the film depicts rescuing her husband Johnny as a motivating factor for that first trip back to Maryland, in real life, she didn’t return for him until a later trip.

Still, while some of the ways Lemmons and Howard alter the truth will distract sticklers for historical accuracy in the audience, the artistic flourishes they add to the truth are some of the film’s most effective moments. Though the real life Tubman received the nickname “Moses” for the way she would lead slaves freedom, here, she gains it because singing “Go Down Moses” is her signal to those slaves that she’s come to lead them north. There is visual and poetic beauty in hearing Erivo’s voice float out of the woods toward a field full of slaves and in turn watching them run toward that signal of salvation.

Though it would be easy to dismiss the choice as a clever way to justify allowing the Tony-winning actress to sing throughout, hymns were used as a form of communication in the Railroad and music is actually one of the cleverest ways in which both the film and its version of Tubman communicate. It’s incredibly moving to watch Harriet say goodbye to her mother by singing lines from a hymn about parting not just because of the meaning for the character in that moment, but because of what that hymn meant at the time: both expression of faith that God would one day free them and means of surviving until then.

That said, perhaps the most moving needle drop in the film is a song that’s not only sung from the period, but isn’t sung by Erivo. It would perhaps be unfair to reveal what that song is, but suffice to say that it’s a song about the period made famous during another period of the civil rights movement in America. And while that song will be an unforgivable anachronism to those same history buffs put off by the story, its use ultimately speaks to the way Harriet deliberately speaks to discussions around race and particularly blackness through the time period in which its story takes place.

Yes, a cynical viewer could roll their eyes at Harriet’s many impassioned speeches or how hard Terence Blanchard’s score tries to spark emotion already perfectly plain onscreen, but what ultimately makes Harriet so effective is that the picture it paints about the shameful truth of America’s deep-seated racism is a rebuke to any glorification of the south on film or otherwise. Far worse stories have made about far less deserving subjects. Maybe, for now, it’s enough that it tells a different story than the kinds we’ve seen a million times before, told from a perspective so often overlooked.

Harriet opens in theaters everywhere Friday.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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