Harriet coming out in 2019 is one of those surprising things that you didn’t expect. How could one of the most famous black women ever not already have a real, state of the art, biography film? The woman who saved so many slaves in the underground railroad? The woman who won an informal contest about replacing Andrew Jackson from a $20 bill.
The most surprising thing about that internet contest is that it sort of worked! The secretary of treasury at the time said sure and was going to do some things. And then Trump happened, and well, there are “more important things to worry about” according to the new secretary of treasury, and she got the shaft again.
This movie might have been made just to help expedite the whole process. I’ve heard about movies being made for worse reasons!
Like, “My best friend was mysterious and hid behind trees, here is there movie!”
Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) was born a slave, to slave parents, and only knew working for the man. Her sisters were sold off at a young age, and she was left lonely with out him. She was a similar age to the slaveholders son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), and knew him her whole life.
After a plea for freedom, based on the wishes of the former owner, Minty knew that she just had to get out of there. So she ran. And with help from people along the way, but on a journey by herself, she made it to Philadelphia, land of the free. There she met slavery abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), who gave her new papers and let her pick her new identity, Harriet Tubman. And for a year she lived a free woman, learning how to be free and live well for once.
But it wasn’t enough. She had family down south. She had a husband. And if the movement up here wouldn’t go and save them, she would just go and do it herself. Again. And again. And again. And again.
And shit, one day, maybe lead a goddamn army regiment during the civil war.
And introducing for the first time, this GUN.
Sigh. Okay. This is a standard biopic, somewhat boring at times, with good acting from the lead. That is what I am now going to say in more words right after this sentence.
Erivo has been a great acting addition since she hit the scene seemingly last year, and ended up great in our titular role. She would be the reason to see this movie in theaters, as she carries the film.
The cast of supporting characters doesn’t work as well. Seeing Odom Jr., was great, as someone historical other than Aaron Burr, but he felt too goofy in his role and it took away from some of the seriousness of his scenes. Monáe stood out way too much also to feel believable in the role.
The slaveholders are once again turned into cartoon characters instead of villains that both intimidate and induce real scorn. Alwyn never feels natural in his role, and the final confrontation between his character and Tubman is just so fake feeling that the story seems to be wasted on that.
When doing a biography film, it is important to steep it in as much truth as possible if they want to make it something schools will buy and show for education reasons.
Other important notes: I am glad they included her civil war victory. I am glad they showed the various members of the railroad who helped her along the way. And this movie has Fredrick Douglas in it, but they never say his name. It’s great he has such an iconic look that we can tell without doing the awkward name dropping thing lampooned in Walk Hard.
Harriet features great acting from the lead, but the rest could have had improvements to make this a truly great film.