Sometimes the stories that don’t get made into films can be even more revealing of the dynamics within Hollywood than the ones that do. Though one of the most important American historical figures, until now, Harriet Tubman never received the biopic treatment given to so many other less significant individuals. Born into slavery and later escaping and leading thirteen missions to free people who were still enslaved before serving as a scout and a spy for the Union Army and becoming the first woman to lead an armed expedition and later advocating for women’s suffrage. Even considering that so many in Hollywood have been resistant to funding any films that don’t have white male leads, it is absolutely confounding that this story didn’t only have enormous storytelling potential but is one that people want and need to hear. Unfortunately, despite all the potential the story held, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet seems determined not to stray from the path set by many biopics before it and adopts an all too formulaic approach.
Following a trend of biopics that present so little in the realm of information that isn’t common knowledge that at times they can slip into being outright reductive, Harriet seems to be content with little more than the information presented in a first grade history lesson. Jokes have been made that some films have done little research beyond the Wikipedia page of their subjects and, indeed, Harriet Tubman’s Wikipedia entry does include very nearly all of the events that took place in the film but, beyond that, even the brief description at the top of the page includes major events that were not included in the film or, if they were, they were only mentioned in passing or written over the screen just before the credits rolled. Leaving aspects out of a story is, of course, an inherent part of adapting anything to the screen but here it seemed there was little interest in portraying any of the stories that aren’t common knowledge, despite their still being an integral part of Tubman’s story and America’s history.
The film ends with Tubman guiding a raid that would free more than 700 slaves but it cuts out before the raid occurs and its outcome, along with the final fifty years of Harriet Tubman’s life, were relegated to being detailed only in text, leaving me wishing I had seen that film. Instead, following her initial escape, a cycle of Tubman deciding she needs to return to free others, being advised against it, ignoring the advice and going, and then miraculously leading former slaves to freedom, is repeated for most of the film. It is a riveting experience to watch unfold the first time, and the reactions that were portrayed when freedom was reached were always emotionally charged and uplifting, but the repetition diminished the impact over time and failed to leave room for the lesser known stories, while a story concerning a white slave owner takes a larger and larger role and ultimately detracts from the focus on Harriet Tubman. Also largely left out are depictions of the brutality of slavery. Efforts are made to present rampant racism but it shies away from outward displays of beatings and other violence. It differs from many other recent films that have dealt with slavery and the decision was purportedly made to make the focus on freedom. This may allow for a somewhat wider audience to go see it, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it made for a viewing that was too comfortable considering the subject and that it failed to add weight to some of the scenarios depicted.
As for what was kept in the film, the cinematography was gorgeous and the costume and set designs were spot on and many scenes were individually compelling, in no small part due to Cynthia Erivo’s wonderful performance. Erivo made a shift from theatre to film last year with Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, and her performance here is perfectly calibrated as she plays Tubman with a calculated intensity. This is the kind of role that should make her a star. Though Erivo was excellent and the technical aspects of the film were well executed, in the end, the intent behind the film was admirable and getting stories like this shown on screen is important, but it lacked ambition and failed to serve as a teaching tool for anyone that has any knowledge of history. I sincerely hope that this film, in success or failure, does not tell studios that they should shelve the story but instead that they should try again and make something with more depth.