Biopics should teach you something and I learned plenty about Harriet Tubman here. Unfortunately being educational alone does not make for a good film. I left Kasi Lemmon’s (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) Harriet sadly underwhelmed. Thinking that Harriet Tubman deserved more. That being said the people in the theatre on the opening night of the Montreal International Black Film Festival seemed to enjoy it. Another case of the public differing in opinion from the critics? Was it due simply to the fact that they were appreciating the fact that a film had finally been made about her? As a social “event” this film is a triumph, but purely as a film it was lacking.
A feeling that the amazing Harriet Tubman deserved better than this ran through me as the lights went up. Which is too bad as right now in history the United States needs a reason to feel good and be shown that their history includes plenty of heroes. The dark side of this is racism and slavery. Those are the reasons which forced Harriet Tubman into her heroism. When it is said that they should “Make America great again” I wonder when in their history they are thinking of?
Being born a slave, Minty (Cynthia Erivo – Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale) and her free husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh – from television’s Doctors) don’t want the same life she has led for their children. As such, her father (Clarke Peters – from television’s The Wire) asks her owner for her freedom as he promised that of all the children once their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway – Coming to America, What’s Love Got to Do With It) turned 45 and she is 46. He refuses and his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn – The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scot) decides that Minty is trouble and should be sold.
Minty catches wind of this and decides she must attempt escape to the north. John wants to come with her, but she sneaks off without him not being able to bear the thought of getting caught and John losing his freedom.
Against all odds and aided by the voice of God, Minty manages to make it all alone to Phladelphia. There she is helped by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr. – Murder on the Orient Express – 2017) and a born free black woman of means named Marie (Janelle Monae – Moonlight, Hidden Figures). She takes on the free name of Harriet Tubman.
Not happy about leaving those she loves behind, Harriet decides she is going to go back for John. Amazingly, she gets back only to find out that John has remarried and his new wife is expecting. Harriet ends up taking back nine slaves including some of her siblings. Soon she becomes the best “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Risking her life ever time she helped slaves escape.
Though the film is full of drama that doesn’t excuse the cheesy tone of the film. It had the feeling and look almost of a Lifetime movie or one of those CBC history vignettes. Meaning it never really felt real. Plus it is really scattered. Really trying to do too much. It goes off in several different directions resulting in something which doesn’t tell a cogent story.
Then there is what they have told versus what they have omitted. Some minor things were spent plenty of time on while how Harriet manages to travel back and forth from Maryland to Philadelphia is hurried through. A weird choice as there could have been plenty more tension during those portions of her story.
The best part of the film is Cynthia Erivo. She definitely looks the part of a woman who could take care of herself and escape many miles through the woods. She deserved better material to work with.
It is tragic that it took so long for Harriet Tubman’s story to be told, but doubly so that it was told this way.
-Feature Commentary with Director/Co-writer Kasi Lemmons