Thursday, December 31, 2020

"Harriet": review

"Harriet" is a 2019 dramatic biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring British actress Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, the film's central figure.  Americans will have grown up learning about Tubman and her involvement in the Underground Railroad.  Tubman, a slave who escaped north, managed to bring around 70 slaves to freedom with her via the Railroad, making her a "conductor."  Later in life, during the Civil War, she led a military expedition in 1863 that liberated 750 slaves.  The film notes, at the end, that Tubman was and remains one of the few women ever to lead a US military expedition.

I don't know enough about the biography of the real Harriet Tubman to comment on what the film got right and wrong about her particulars.  I did do a bit of superficial reading, though, and the main points of her life seem to have been portrayed faithfully.  Some critics generally praised "Harriet" for the story it tells while also complaining that the story arc is "formulaic."  Assuming the movie follows Tubman's life fairly faithfully, though, maybe a formulaic telling is also a truthful one.

The film begins with Araminta "Minty" Ross having a "spell" and being found by her new husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), a freedman.  Minty has been having these spells, which contain visions she interprets as prophetic, ever since having been struck in the head by a slave-master who had been trying to hit another slave.  We learn a bit about life under the Brodess family, which cruelly forbids the freeing of Minty's mother per the wishes of the now-dead Brodess patriarch.  The current patriarch, Edward Brodess (Mike Marunde), tears up the lawyer's writ affirming freedom for the Ross family.  Eventually, Minty, guided by her visions, decides to escape, but insists that her husband stay behind:  he is a freedman who might lose his freedom if caught abetting an escaped slave.  Minty is pursued by the Brodess cohort, which includes Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who is close to Minty's age.

Minty leaps off a bridge to evade pursuit, and she is declared dead by her pursuers.  Minty survives the fall, however, and makes her way from slave-holding Maryland to abolitionist Pennsylvania, where she meets antislavery crusader William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and becomes acquainted with the already-existent Underground Railroad, a network of people who help conduct escaped slaves to freedom in the North.  Still asks Minty whether she would like to take a freedwoman's name; she chooses "Harriet" after her mother, and "Tubman" after her husband John, whom she had left behind.  Prompted by a vision to go back and rescue John, Harriet discovers that John presumed his wife dead, and he has remarried.  Harriet is crushed, but while still in Maryland, she realizes that she can rescue other friends and family members, and she does so, much to the amazement of William Still, who had been worried Harriet would not be up to the task.  Harriet makes repeated trips to Maryland to free even more slaves, earning her the respect of other Railroad members, as well as the nickname "Moses" among the people in the South—both slaves and slaveholders—who hear of her accomplishments.  The movie leaps forward in time to give us a glimpse of the 1863 Combahee River Raid in South Carolina, during which over 750 slaves were sent North.  (Trivia:  many of those newly freed slaves joined the Union Army to fight the final years of the Civil War.)  

Overall, "Harriet" was a compellingly watchable film.  Harriet Tubman is, without a doubt, a towering figure in American history, which probably made it inevitable that the movie would come off as a hagiography.  Some critics have complained that the movie engages in magical realism by taking Harriet's visions too literally, but whether or not the visions themselves had the significance they seemed to have, it's true that Harriet was given to "spells," and that she acted according to the dictates of the visions she received.  When William Still first meets Harriet and takes down her biographical information, he hears her story of being struck in the head as a child and quietly writes in his notes, Possible brain damage.  So the movie provides at least a little skepticism about the veracity of Harriet's visions.

Other elements of the movie deserve mention.  Kasi Lemmons's understated direction gives the film a decent pace and allows her actors room to breathe.  Lemmons, despite perhaps being guilty of making Tubman into a saint (but wasn't she, though?), never over-sentimentalizes slavery or Harriet's personal situation.  Harriet Tubman is shown as having a soldier's heart, a true sense of mission, and a Moses-like desire to see all of her people freed.  Cynthia Erivo's costars also do admirable work.  Zackary Momoh as John Tubman exudes warmth, pain, and sentimentality.  Vondie Curtis Hall, in the role of subversive freedman preacher Samuel Green, does an excellent job of showing the lengths to which one had to go to fight slavery right under the noses of the white slave-masters.  Leslie Odom, Jr., also does yeoman's work in the role of William Still, a driven intellectual who is sometimes overcautious.  Clarke Peters, as Harriet's father Ben, evokes love and sympathy as a man who wants to stay behind so that others may be freed in his place.  Lastly, Janelle Monáe is all elegance, sophistication, and fighting spirit as Marie Buchanon, a black woman born free, but who comes to appreciate the horrific plight of the slaves.

Let's talk a moment about the elements that contributed to the film's atmosphere.  The musical soundtrack for "Harriet" occasionally evoked John Barry's grand, sweeping work on "Dances with Wolves," but it also occasionally strayed into corny, TV-movie territory; I would have liked a little more artistic consistency.  The film was shot mostly in my home state of Virginia, and the cinematography was generally lush and beautiful.  Sets and costumes effectively evoked life in the pre-war and Civil War era.  Most of these elements helped make the film convincingly immersive.

Overall, at biopics go, "Harriet" made for a good watch, bringing the story of one of America's greatest heroines to life in a way that was accessible and relatable without being overly treacly or pompous.  Recommended.

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