“Harriet” tells the story of Harriet Tubman — but little else


Image courtesy of Allied Global Marketing

“Harriet” promotional poster.

By Thomas Wick, Senior Staff Writer

November is almost here and that means only one thing — Oscar films are coming. It seems that the only way filmmakers are able to get nominated for an Academy Award is to release their film in the late fall, which only makes my job harder. One of those potential award nominees is the biopic “Harriet,” based on the life of the slave abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

The story of the film begins with Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) and her life as a slave on a plantation in the South. Spoiler alert for those who forgot their elementary school history classes — Harriet runs away, escapes to the North and goes on to free many slaves by smuggling them across the South. She’s one of the most well-known historical figures in the slave abolitionist movement, and her legacy is translated into a decent biopic.

The first strength of this movie is Erivo’s performance. She has proven herself in films such as “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale,” and it’s good to see her impressive filmography continue to expand.

Erivo brings the proper amount of drama and charisma when required while going the extra mile to deliver a character with powerful ethos. The moment Harriet gains her freedom — walking through the sunlit fields of the North — is incredibly moving thanks to Erivo’s upbeat delivery. Erivo evokes sheer determination when she is surrounded by Southerners as she is smuggling slaves across a river or rough road. Leslie Odom Jr. is also a standout, delivering a charming performance with even a few moments of dry humor. The rest of the cast is fine, though they aren’t anything worth noting.

This is also an aesthetically beautiful film, complemented by the dazzling landscapes of antebellum America and brought to life by the cinematography of John Toll. He’s done cinematography for other great films such as “Braveheart” and “Iron Man 3,” and his talent is on full display once again. The lighting and framing make every scene pop and every performance more compelling. The aforementioned scene of Harriet walking through the fields is a great example of this. The rays of light hit her at the right angles and make her appear almost like an angel.

However, aside from the acting and cinematography, “Harriet” falls short of being an interesting biopic. The film is similar in a lot of ways to the 2017 best picture nominee “The Post,” a film that was technically well-made, featured great performances and direction and faithfully told the story of true events. Yet despite all that quality, the film was devoid of charm and energy, which detracted from its emotional impact. That is exactly the same problem I had with “Harriet” — a good film but nothing more.

The main flaw with this film is its generic storytelling. Tubman’s story is ripe with so much potential, yet this film sticks to telling it in such a formulaic way. Most of the plot points are recycled from better biopics, and it feels more like the writers are checking off boxes rather than organically telling the story. It starts with the tragic backstory, shows a montage of her success, introduces some mild conflict in the third act and then resolves nearly all conflict by the end — the whole experience feels hollow. This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, but compared to other similar biopics, such as “12 Years a Slave,” “Harriet” is far less engaging.

The film explores no complex ideas surrounding the slave owners. It attempts to give the slave owners some motivation, but this ultimately boils down to their money problems rather than dark ideology — a lazy way to characterize your antagonist. Conversely, “12 Years a Slave” was a brutal examination of just how evil slavery is, and “Harriet” is the PG-13 version of that.

The film even has the generic time-condensed success montage that reminds me of that montage from every other biopic — you know, the one in the middle act where the character’s success skyrockets and we see quick snippets of that success. It was in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” and plenty of other films, biopic or otherwise.

There are a few other flaws with this movie, but to some these may just be nitpicks. There are moments in the film that are clearly toying with the audiences suspension of disbelief, and it took me out of the screening.

They’re just minor things, such as Harriet running out in a populated field, jumping into a wagon and escaping to the North, while none of the 20 farmers standing outside in this big wide-open field saw her running across to jump in. In a sci-fi film like “Star Wars,” I could usually suspend my disbelief at something like this, but when the film is trying to tell a true story, it frustrates me when it ignores reality.

Some of the editing choices also annoyed me for how they detract from the film’s great qualities. There was a scene in the middle of the film where William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) is chatting with Harriet about her new life. As Erivo is giving a great performance, I expected the camera to focus on her face, but instead it spends a whole 10 seconds showing William writing notes on his paper. That should be a simple cut, but instead detracts from the actors’ performances.

Most viewers probably won’t mind these issues — if you simply want to see Tubman’s life story brought to the big screen, you will be satisfied. It probably won’t get nominated for any Oscars, with the possible exception of Erivo’s performance and Toll’s cinematography, but it’s a fine film to see.

It’ll definitely give teachers something to show their students in class when they teach the slave abolitionist era and they were too tired to make a real lesson plan for the next few classes. If that was the intent, then “Harriet” most definitely succeeded.

“Harriet” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.