If you’re looking for a movie that offers a deeper view on the life of Harriet Tubman and her accomplishments, you’ll be sorely disappointed by Kasi Lemmons’ rote biopic Harriet. Tubman, who you most likely learned about in 4th or 5th grade, was a slave who escaped to the North and then become a powerful abolitionist and liberator, returning south multiple times to free more slaves. All that Harriet adds to this knowledge is that Tubman would get spells and visions of the future from God. This religious aspect is never probed with any curiosity or critique. It basically becomes a superpower that Tubman has, and while it’s fine to put Tubman in a mythic light, the film is too flat to render her supernatural. Harriet is a period movie where the protagonist occasionally gets visions that aid her in her duties. But there’s almost no insight into Tubman’s personality, her world, or her actions beyond what you probably already know.
Beginning in 1849, we meet “Minty” (Cynthia Erivo), a slave in Maryland whose master won’t agree to her freedom despite legal documents that would allow her to be freed. After the death of her master and now under the eye of his cruel son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) Minty resolves to run away to the north with her husband, but, not wanting to risk his freedom if he’s caught, makes the journey alone. When she arrives in Philadelphia, she meets with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and takes the new name “Harriet Tubman”. After spending a year working in Philadelphia, Harriet longs to be reunited with her husband and family, so she takes it upon herself to free them and bring them north.
It appears that Lemmons wants to lean into the “Moses” aspect of Harriet’s story, going by the nickname she earned freeing slaves, but also appropriate due to her frequent interactions with God. But Lemmons doesn’t do anything to build upon this beyond noting that God clearly doesn’t like slavery. That’s all well and good, but by keeping Harriet in close-up, we don’t get a look at any institution whether it be the slave trade or the Underground Railroad. And keeping the focus on Tubman would be fine except there’s no nuance or humanity to her character despite Erivo’s steely performance. She goes by a credo of “live free or die”, and we all nod in agreement, and that’s kind of the end of it.
The two-hour film presented here seems like just about the worst way to tell Harriet Tubman’s story. There’s no artistry to it, and while it may not be a cradle-to-grave biopic, it lacks any kind of flair. Given Tubman’s incredible story, it seems like a biopic would either be better suited to a John Adams-like miniseries that can really drill down on major episodes in Tubman’s life or a movie that focuses on a single event like Lincoln. Instead, Harriet is a cursory overview of stuff you already know (she freed slaves) or suspected (she loved her family). I get that the film probably had a miniscule budget, but by the time you get to the raid at Combahee Ferry, you’re wondering why the film devotes less than ten minutes to that event instead of making it the entire film. Why should the audience respect that accomplishment when the film relegates it to a nifty footnote?
There’s a good movie (or miniseries) to be made about Harriet Tubman, but Harriet isn’t it. It’s not an abysmal movie as much as it’s just a disappointing one. Tubman deserves to have a good movie made about her life and accomplishments, but Harriet is sterile and empty. It’s pretty much just a Wikipedia page but half as interesting.