The Reel Review
Cynthia Erivo stars in the long overdue story of Harriet Tubman, tracing her inspirational pre-Civil War escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s most well known freedom fighters. After her escape, Tubman frequently returned to the South, leading dozens of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses.
Presented with such an iconic figure who helped change the course of American history, one would expect a story rich with detail about Tubman’s fascinating life, but co-writer/director Kasi Lemmons instead offers up a frustratingly bland story set to an equally bland score from Oscar-nominee Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman). Missing are the fascinating details of Tubman’s daring missions and her clever methods for avoiding capture. Instead we get corny dialogue, one dimensional characters and fictional clashes with slave owners. Even Lemmons’ direction is muddled by pointless, confusing flashbacks and too many missed opportunities to inject her story with much needed emotion. The cinematography and art direction, however, are on point.
Then there is the acting. Erivo, who was mesmerizing in Bad Times at the El Royale, delivers as good a performance as is possible, despite being saddled with such an average script, as does fellow Tony award winner Leslie Odom Jr., as abolitionist William Still. Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) and country music entertainer Jennifer Nettles, as Tubman’s former slave owners, are laughably cartoonish. And even the typically solid Janelle Monáe seems directionless as the free woman who houses Tubman when she arrives in Philadelphia. Although the film is worth seeing just because we haven’t seen this important story on the big screen before, it is both ironic and sad that the story of such an iconic risk taker is itself so risk averse.
• Harriet Tubman was plagued throughout her life with severe headaches, seizures and bouts of unconsciousness after an overseer accidentally struck her in the head as a child with metal weight intended for another slave. Decades later, Tubman would be the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War, freeing more than 750 slaves during the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina in June of 1863.
• Cynthia Erivo won a Tony in 2016 for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple, a Grammy for the cast recording and a Daytime Emmy for performing with the cast on NBC’s Today. If she wins an Oscar for Harriet, Erivo would become the youngest and fastest EGOT recipient in history.
• Harriet director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons is also an accomplished actress, having appeared in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, 1992’s Candyman and 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, which she also directed.