The Hollywood biopic… all glitz, glamour and quite often Oscar bait. However, the last few years have reminded us that there are plenty of stories which still need to be told. We hear Harriet Tubman’s name in school history lessons and then every-so-often when she’s pushed to be on the United States currency. However, despite her fascinating story, we’ve never seen it hit the big screen until now. Here’s what you need to know about Harriet.
Harriet tells the story of the titular escaped slave, turned Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. We watch her escape from slavery and develop into the powerful and fierce woman she would become… legend, leader, spy… this is a story which desperately needs to be told. Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe and Joe Alwyn co-star.
Kasi Lemmons directs from a script she co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard.
Can we please just acknowledge the gem which Cynthia Erivo is? In her portrayal of Harriet Tubman she brings an unspoken, but vital sense of strength. In her layered and complex portrayal she zeros in on so much of Tubman’s complexity— despite her strength, she’s still trying to escape slavery. She’s fragile, and sometimes it shows. She’s an active and important leading woman who has demonstrated in her roles in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows that she’s destined for great things.
Continuing with the glowing praise as it relates to casting, the combination of Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. are so good in this movie, I can’t stand it. Odom features as William Still, a free man helping escaped slaves. Odom is a breath of fresh air in the part, injecting not only a likable sense of comedy, but a definite and palpable chemistry with Erivo. Meanwhile, Monáe is just… fabulous. That is all that can be said. It is her world, and we’re all just living in it.
Ultimately, the films largest struggle is probably in the depictions of the white slave holders. The main antagonist is played by Joe Alwyn. While the young actor has been exploding on the Hollywood scene with some solid roles of late, he doesn’t quite work as the evil Gideon. He’s not menacing enough, feeling more like a pouting teen idol and less like someone who should be feared.
This extends to the slave owners who become almost buffoonish as the narrative evolves. Jennifer Nettles is a bit over the top, and more reminiscent of a southern belle stereotype in her portrayal of Eliza Brodess. These are the story’s antagonists, and ultimately the leading performances from Erivo, Odom and Monáe are so good, they would stand out even more against stronger villains. Give them the opportunity to rise above a reality of the period.
At the same time, the movie’s depictions of slavery are predominantly passive. Throughout the film the escaped slaves talk about — and show— the scars from beatings. Harriet talks about her skull being fractured at a young age by an overseer. However, a truly important part of this narrative is the horror of slavery and in the films handling of it, some punches are definitely pulled. Would a more pointed handling of the topic have detracted from the narrative story? That’s difficult to tell as hindsight is twenty-twenty. Perspective is incredibly important to a movie like Harriet and as is, it is a very uplifting and powerful story; however, it runs the risk of being an overly Hollywoodized retelling, and this falls to the audience to know their expectations.
Harriet is a glossy and beautifully constructed telling of the often overshadowed story of Harriet Tubman. There is so much here to like, and if these stories at all float your boat, make sure to check this one out. Cynthia Erivo shines and makes a definite statement that she’s bound for great things in Hollywood.
Harriet hits theaters November 1st.