Review: Harriet (2019)

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriters: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material, and language including racial epithets
Release Date: 11/1/19 (Limited Theatrical)
Where to Watch: HBO Now
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%

We have waited a long time for a full-length film biopic on Harriet Tubman to be released, and unfortunately, we may have to wait a little bit longer for a great one. This film, simply titled Harriet (which is fine) and directed by Kasi Lemmons, shows Harriet from the beginnings of her freedom from slavery (including a brief glimpse into her plantation life) through her amazing work on the Underground Railroad.

As portrayed by near-EGOT winner and Oscar nominee (and fellow vegan!) Cynthia Erivo, Harriet Tubman is tough, honest, and caring — and, most of all, faithful. She is often shown having so-called visions from and talks with God; as an Atheist, I’m inclined to find this unlikely, yet Erivo makes this act as believable as possible. She looks like a total badass at times, although her transformation from shy-ish slave to tough-as-nails free woman seems too sudden.

Most of the supporting characters are fairly boring, and are somewhat caricature-like — including Joe Alwyn (Taylor Swift’s beau), who is menacing, but a bit over-the-top as the plantation owners’ son who is nasty but seemingly has a soft spot for Harriet. Janelle Monae is great, as always, as the boardinghouse owner who was born free but cares about Harriet and her mission to save as many slaves as possible.

While Harriet’s story is powerful enough to stand on its own, it could have used much more oomph and intensity — it’s like a kid brother to 12 Years a Slave, a perfectly-made film that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of life as a slave. I only wish that Lemmon’s film had depicted more of the harsher aspects of rescuing slaves, instead of spending so much time on the successes.

Although I am no Underground Railroad scholar, I have heard that this film contains numerous historical inaccuracies, which is very frustrating for a story that took so long to get to the screen. In addition, my Atheism aside, I didn’t like the way in which Harriet’s “visions” were shown; it was very confusing, and it wasn’t until at least halfway through the movie when I actually realized what they were. (I’d thought they were flashbacks). Also, the title cards and snippets of relevant information at the end were in a font that was very difficult to read.

C+

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