Basically: Cynthia Erivo is great but boy, is this sanitized.
Summary: Everything you already knew about historical figure Harriet Tubman.
A few years ago, when I ‘d think of historical figures who deserved their own movie, Harriet Tubman was one of the first figures to spring to mind. We all know most of the story, right? Tubman was a slave who escaped by the speed of her very own feet and led others to the North using nothing but instinct and the stars. There’s not much we were taught before or after that unless she was chosen as someone we wanted to study further. My gripe with this movie is that it gives us very little beyond that. It’s what we here refer to as surface-level: a work that gives us the facts or event points without expanding on why those things are significant within the larger picture, usually due to a lack of worldbuilding or unwillingness to explore why those things matter. It may be due to how the movie tries a straightforward drama-action approach, where a suspense atmosphere would probably have been more appropriate.
Harriet shows us why Tubman was so heroic and her efforts, but it’s also clearly watered down in efforts to make this an outing that you could show a classroom or show to a kid, if they were at the age to learn about this piece of history. I’m not asking for 12 Years a Slave kind of visuals, but Harriet is deeply sanitized to the point where things are the way they are because the dialogue says so- characters are basically saying “Slavery is BAD!” There is some good, necessary dialogue in here about how people were handled as transactions and property, but there are also definitely more visual ways that could have immersed us into the time period in other aspects- day-to-day labor, living conditions. It just didn’t feel as full as it should have.
This is also hindered by the questionable inclusion of Tubman’s epilepsy, which led to visions and dreams that she apparently attributed to God. The inclusion itself isn’t questionable; it’s the way they show it. Harriet more or less faints, we’re shown the vision, then she wakes up and recounts what happened in the vision and what she needs to do to avoid it. If the vision hadn’t been shown, we would have had the mentality to trust in Harriet and followed her instinct.
I feel like this is literal storytelling characteristic is typically of those of 90’s historical films (which is when the script was written), but there are signs that Harriet wants to be more experimental. There’s a scene where Harriet meets the border of the North that is absolutely stunning and appropriately silent. The moment is purely felt and I wish there were more moments or sequences that took the time to build this kind of emotion. Erivo is talented enough to bring that through the audience (Bad Times at El Royale will always make me trust in her), so this largely feels like such a missed opportunity. Let’s hope her turn as Aretha Franklin in Genius gives her some more opportunities to do this.