REVIEW: Strong lead performance doesn’t sustain ‘Harriet’ biopic

The story of Harriet Tubman deserves to be told in an award caliber, fantastic movie. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

As the title implies, the film follows the adult life of Tubman. Beginning with her time as a slave, the movie introduces the protagonist as Araminta, or Minty as she’s been nicknamed.

After finding out her slave owner won’t free her based on a previous agreement, Araminta opts to leave her current life behind and escape north. Her journey is dangerous and filled with hardship, but eventually, she crosses into the free state of Pennsylvania and finds her way to Philadelphia, where an anti-slavery organization is headquartered.

Upon her arrival, she’s able to choose a new name, and she selects Harriet Tubman. In the ensuing days, Tubman finds employment, a home and a free life. However, knowing that her family and others are still in the slave system of the south, she decides to help them come north. As history tells us, Tubman succeeded and continued her efforts, freeing more slaves from the south. Her work in doing so is shown on screen here.

No matter the delivery, Harriet Tubman’s inspiring story is filled with bravery and resolve. She’s an American hero, through-and-through, and that shines through here with her actions of sense of righteousness in the face of danger. Seeing Harriet’s will to survive and her commitment to continuing her mission is compelling, and an audience of course is rooting for her to succeed.

However, the way the overall story is executed and paced leaves a lot to be desired. The way the film portrays the passage of time and its impact on people, for example, is less than ideal.

A whole year passes after Harriet gets to Pennsylvania before she starts her work, but it’s basically a fade to black and then reintroduces Tubman a year later. The movie doesn’t take the time to show Harriet going through her experiences and getting accustomed to this new life. Moments like this are common in “Harriet,” as there are a few times where there’s a time leap and we’re re-introduced to the historical figure years later. As a result, it’s difficult to see her growth.

Courtesy Focus Features.

A rather conflicting issue with “Harriet” is the main character herself, too. Cynthia Erivo does solid work here as the lead character and she’s fantastic in some of the more emotional moments. Her performance is indeed strong here.

However, the Harriet she’s portraying here feels somewhat inauthentic. Harriet comes off here too much like a legend, nearly like an invincible super hero at times, rather than a real woman trying to do the best she could, which is what she really was. Save for a few times, Harriet is portrayed here as larger than life, and as a result, the movie isn’t as grounded and she becomes hard to relate to.

Moments where Harriet is portrayed as having sorts of visions from a higher power also feel misplaced, and again, add to the character being unrelatable.

Another detriment in “Harriet” was the film’s antagonist, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). In the movie, Gideon becomes Harriet’s owner after his father passes away, and after her escape, he is determined to get her back. The dynamic sets up a cat-and-mouse game where Gideon is always chasing after Harriet, with the goal of making her a slave again.

After some research, it turns out that Gideon was made up, completely fictional. The movie’s No. 1 villain who was always after Harriet didn’t even exist. Harriet Tubman was trying to free slaves from states that still endorsed and allowed the horrific practice to continue, you’d think that struggle would be enough drama without having to add in a rather generic villain. But that’s what “Harriet” does, and it’s ultimately to the film’s detriment.

While the movie does feature a strong lead performance and some good production design to recreate the look of the time, “Harriet” largely comes across like a made-for-TV film.

Erivo’s performance and some well done moments, such as a montage where former slaves Harriet freed are telling their stories to the anti-slavery organization’s leadership, give the movie just enough to warrant a 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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