Both in its premise and its marketing, Harriet looks like a straightforward Oscar-season piece of prestige biopic, telling an inspiring true story and hunting for acting trophies. In practice, though, Kasi Lemmons’s take on the truly spectacular life of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) is a far weirder offering. Dashing between tones, it generally plays more like a superhero origin story than a heavyweight historical drama.
Charting Harriet’s run to freedom and her time becoming the figurehead of the Underground Railroad, Harriet has a lot of ground to cover. She was one of history’s most remarkably brave and heroic people, and her exploits could easily fill another two movies, but Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard’s script moves through all the vital stuff at an impressive pace. Unfortunately, this constant motion has forced a sacrifice of tonal consistency, harrowing scenes sitting uncomfortably next to upbeat montages without a pause for breath in the middle.
This slightly muddled feeling extends to the direction, too. Though Lemmons does sometimes conjure white-knuckle tension and rousing speeches, a lot of set pieces come and go weightlessly and repetitive dream/vision sequences are weakly styled. There’s also a strange central thesis that Harriet’s success was a result of a direct line to God, which seems a little reductive.
Holding it all together, though, is Erivo as Harriet. After a tremendous breakout year in 2018, Erivo further proves she’s a true movie star in a performance that plays to her strengths fantastically and could well earn her the Oscar that completes her EGOT. Harriet’s journey into commanding heroism is perfectly handled, and Erivo gets some showstopping songs.
If any true-life figure deserves the superhero movie treatment, it’s Harriet Tubman, and Erivo more than does her story justice. It’s just a shame that the script and style can’t always keep up.
CAST: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn
DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons
WRITERS: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
SYNOPSIS: The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.