Cynthia Erivo is best known for her Tony-winning stage performances; I still queue up this performance (watch until the end) when I’m in need of a bit of inspiration—I can’t watch the last minute of the clip without getting chills. She’s amazing in so many ways, and it’s only natural that she’d make the jump to cinema in recent years, with supporting roles in Bad Times at the El Royale and Steve McQueen’s Widows. Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet marks the first time she’ll carry a film as its star; in this case, she’s American heroine (and some-day face of the $20 bill) Harriet Tubman.
The production has had a long road to the screen; as chronicled recently by Variety, not only was it a tough story to find funding for, but not everyone is a fan of casting the British Erivo as one of America’s most revered African American historical figures. That controversy aside, Erivo comes across quite comfortable in front of the camera in the lead role, creating Tubman as a woman of fierce determination and unwavering faith, one who depends on her community for guidance and support and yet is unafraid to forge her own way if circumstances demand it. Born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, Tubman never set out to be the woman who’d ultimately lead at least 70 fellow slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad (among many other notable accomplishments), but as her understanding of the world and its injustices evolved, so, apparently, did her willingness to do something about it.
Where Harriet falls short, then, is in how little we actually get to appreciate all she accomplished, all the change she affected; in fact, the film’s title is slightly misleading, as it diverges from Tubman’s life story more than once, seemingly instead interested in creating some kind of formulaic slave-era drama rather than champion one exceptional woman’s incredible story. I’m not often a fan of biopics that try to do too much; attempting to capture an entire life in two hours is a losing battle, which is why most true-to-life films succeed when they focus on just one significant chapter of their subject’s life. One gets the sense the opposite would be true for Harriet, that had Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard kept their narrative on Tubman (instead of unrelated plantation drama, for example), the film would’ve been the better off for it. Instead, much of Tubman’s most impressive (and I admit, surprising) accomplishments come in the form of an on-screen epilogue just before the credits roll.
Perhaps as filmmakers delve deeper into the many, many untold stories of Tubman’s era, we’ll get a film (or two) that does the woman and her incredible life story justice, exploring it all with the depth of historical context and humanity that it deserves. It would even make sense to keep Erivo on tap to play her again; she does so beautifully here, if in a flawed vehicle. However it comes to be, there is a better way to tell Tubman’s very worth story on screen, and I hope we see that film some day.
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