Biopic Problems: Our Review of ‘Harriet’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF 2019 by - October 31, 2019
Biopic Problems: Our Review of ‘Harriet’

There is a limit to my knowledge of Greatest American Ever Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo). I learned what I can about her through podcasts with white allies as hosts. Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), a black director, hopes to give her story a visual dimension. She begins before the historical figure gave herself her name. That was when she was Araminta “Minty” Ross. She was a woman living under the antebellum and an economy of slavery. Thus, the person making her decisions for her is her owner and rapist Edward (Joe Alwyn). Reaching her threshold, she realizes that she needs to make her own decisions.

This is when she escapes, names herself Harriet Tubman, receives help from the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. She also returns to Maryland to help some of her friends and family escape. In doing so, she becomes a conductor for the Underground Railroad. She eventually helps hundreds of people of African descent escape slavery. Lemmons’ decision to depict Tubman’s early adult life is understandable. Well-meaning allies of feminism like myself still see female strength as indestructible and constant. They’re a set of ideas that Lemmons deconstructs by showing Tubman as a woman facing desperate conditions. As someone trying to figure things out, convincing others that she’s as smart as she needs to be.

Lemmons also takes advantage of a larger production value to depict Tubman’s environs. Harriet is the blackest depiction of Philadelphia in recent memory. I can also say the same with Paul Tazewell’s costume design. That’s coming from someone who resents the idea that only period movies get recognition within that department. There’s a lot of thought in the costumes here, especially with the slightest bit of gender subversion with Tubman’s costumes. There’s also a subversive nature in designing William Still’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) costumes. This shows the playful side of a character who normally behaves with restraint.

That said, depicting the earlier years of Tubman’s life has its problems. That’s because the central relationship in Harriet becomes, unfortunately, between her and Edward. This tension sacrifices the dynamic she has among the other black characters. Her relationship with Still seems slightly adversarial to slightly romantic to nothing. We can say the same about her and a free woman, Marie (Janelle Monae).  The movie expresses the class differences between them through three scenes too few. There’s also a scene featuring Frederick Douglass (Tony Kittles), who has zero lines.

Lemmons previously depicted Eve’s Bayou, a movie that has streaks of magic realism. She then seems qualified to portray a part of Tubman’s story which involves her different abilities and narcolepsy. Tubman and her biographers claim that those narcoleptic spells give her divine vision, which Lemmons portrays through Painleve-like natural shots. Those scenes have color desaturation. The contrast between those scenes and the real life ones feel lazy. This was a hard sell and I’m not buying.

The tension between Tubman and Edward also culminates in a speech that she gives Edward. I understand that doing what she does to her former owner and rapist is gratifying to see. It also strains credulity, just like the other speeches she gives to the other escapees within earshot of slave hunters. Erivo is a woman halfway through her EGOT, but no superhuman can sell the saccharine speeches she has to deliver.

Again, I, as a non-black male, have lesser rights in demanding what parts of Tubman’s story that Lemmons can tell. However, depicting her earlier adult life puts her later accomplishments by the wayside. Her duties as the only female to command an army regimen gets five minutes of screen time. The same goes for her role as a spy, which gets a title card. Or fine, her life as a spy gets hints from her relationship with a former slave tracker (Henry Hunter Hall). There are also disguises during her Underground Railroad phase. But those depictions feels as unsatisfying as the movie is as a whole.

For more information in Harriet go to

  • Release Date: 11/1/2019
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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