The movie Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (director of the haunting and wonderful Eve’s Bayou from 1997) and starring Best Lead Actress in a musical (2016) Tony Winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple), could have been a great film.
Harriet is the story of Minty (short for Araminta), who is born into slavery. Her father and husband are free. Her mother has been sold off to another plantation. She lives to the age of (about) 91 and accomplishes more in those years than most people, even today, could accomplish if they lived nine lives. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, she is urged to “pick a new name to mark your freedom. Most slaves do.” Minty chooses her mother’s first name and the last name of her husband and becomes Harriet Tubman.
The movie opens with a beautiful shot of a field engulfed in fog on a misty day. The camera pans to the right and we see the shacks where the slaves are housed. The next shot is a closeup of Minty (Erivo) lying on the ground, seemingly in the middle of a dream. When John, her husband, comes upon her, he rouses her from one of her ‘spells.’ Throughout the film the audience witnesses countless ‘spells’ that Harriet endures, most of them dealing with the horrors that she and her family have been subjected to.
Within minutes of the film’s opening, Harriet professes her determination to become a free woman. She beseeches her master, asking for her freedom, while surrounded by her family and other slaves. Of course, her request is denied. That doesn’t stop her. She’ll just run away to the North.
Gideon (Joe Alywn, the real life boyfriend of Taylor Swift, who appeared in 4 movies last year, including The Favourite and Boy Erased), has other ideas. He confronts her and tells her, “your daddy may be free. Your husband too. But you, your mommy, your brothers and sisters, your babies and their babies belong to me forever.”
She doesn’t care. It is a life of freedom or death that she wants. Nothing in between. She gets advice from her father about how to escape, where to go and whom to see when she arrives at her predetermined spot; Reverend Green’s church (“and ask him to pray for you.”) While the perilous journey is 100 miles, and she is warned not to go it alone, (for fear of being bitten by copperheads, if she isn’t captured by slave hunters), the way the movie depicts her travels, it seems like a 2 day journey, fraught without much danger. We never find out how or what Harriet eats on her trek to freedom. The only danger she encounters is Gideon and his gang who trap her on a bridge, a short distance away from freedom. Instead of buying into his promises of how he will treat her nicely if she goes back, she jumps from the bridge into a raging river, proclaiming to him, “I will be free or I will die.” She is presumed dead.
It is also implied that she has brain damage from an incident that she got caught up in the middle of in which she is banged on the head with a blunt instrument. Could this brain damage be why she is so fearless?
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, instead of being content with her own freedom, Harriet feels that god has commanded her to go back and free as many more slaves as she can.
She does, and they all take the same journey to freedom that Harriet took. In addition to Harriet and Minty, she is the phantom underground railroad conductor Moses. Most people who hear about Moses and “his” accomplishments, (blacks, whites, slaves), think Moses is a white man in black face helping slaves on their route to freedom.
Janelle Monae makes a brief appearance as Marie, a rich, free black woman, before she is killed.
The movie is filmed beautifully. Much of the story takes place in the rain, mist and fog. That may have been intended as an allegory to all the pain and suffering that Harriet is experiencing. But, again, the audience really doesn’t appreciate any of the pain that Harriet has suffered. In the hands of a better director, say, Steven Spielberg, even a PG-13 film, such as Harriet, the emotional torture and atrocities could have been depicted in a way that allowed the audience to feel something other than boredom. The mini-series Roots is the be all, end all of slave stories. 12 Years A Slave Harriet is not.
The film’s ending seems like it is tacked on. It is abrupt and anticlimactic. The timeline of “2 Years Into The Civil War, South Carolina 1863″ flashes onto the screen, with less than 10 minutes left of the movie.
Harriet is a fearless woman. She is the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil war, where she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 slaves. That scene, however, lasts about 45 seconds. You’d think with an accomplishment such as that the screenwriters would have given that its due.
Cynthia Erivo is an exceptional actress, but this film is not anything that allows her to showcase her talents to their potential. If she is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar it will be only because of the politically correct members who feel that they have to nominate her because she is black and because she is portraying one of the most remarkable black women in the history of the United States.
What Erivo is deserving of an Oscar for is the song that plays over the end credits, Stand Up. It has the potential to become a Top 10 pop hit and is deserving of any and all awards it may receive.
According to the epilogue of the film Harriet’s last words were ” I go to prepare a place for you.”
Harriet Review by Tim Nasson