Friday, November 1, 2019

Movie with Abe: Harriet

Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Released November 1, 2019

There are historical figures whose names are widely known, practically begging for their eventual cinematic treatment. What many may not know – and what filmmakers and distributors use as a selling point – is the larger story behind them and what they did before everyone knew who they were. A portrait of a great person who accomplished much in their life doesn’t necessarily manage to be a great film, and the cinematic realization of incredible events should be considered separately from the emotional impact of what’s represented on screen.

Minty Ross (Cynthia Erivo) lives a subjugated existence as a slave on a Maryland plantation in the 1840s. When the head of her house dies and his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) tries to take steps to keep Minty in line, she escapes and makes it to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist who works closely with the Underground Railroad. Determined not to leave her family behind, Minty, who takes on the new name Harriet Tubman, returns repeatedly to Maryland to rescue anyone she can, staying one step ahead of the slavecatchers and exercising a firm belief that all people have the right to be free.

There’s no questioning the incredible work that Tubman did and her incomparable bravery in heading back towards danger time and time again. Puzzlingly, however, this film chooses to showcase much of her story as a thriller, assisted by a distracting score by Terence Blanchard, with Harriet often running with those she is rescuing through the woods on their treacherous journey to freedom. This genre choice detracts from the story’s overall effectiveness, and much of the dialogue is similarly disappointing, coming off as stale and disingenuous in lackluster support of a far better overarching premise. This doesn’t feel like the film treatment Tubman deserves, far less powerful and resounding than it should be.

Erivo, a Tony winner who delivered a memorable supporting turn in “Widows” last year, is a good choice to play Tubman, a role that was originally pitched with different actresses while this project was in development. She captures her passion even if the writing of her character isn’t superb, and the same is true for Odom and Janelle Monae as an ally of Tubman’s in Philadelphia. The message of this film is clear, and there are emotional and upsetting moments that manage to resound, but the finished product feels far less authentic than other cinematic explorations of slavery such as “12 Years a Slave” or “The Birth of a Nation.”


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