Over the past year I have visited a few sites that played significant importance in Harriet Tubman’s life. From this I have realized not only how much of an impact she had on American history but also how revolutionary of a figure she was for her time. She absolutely deserves all of the attention she’s getting now ($20 bill on the way), and her story is so incredible that I couldn’t wait to see the movie in development about her. Unfortunately, Harriet does not live up to the pedigree of its subject. With so much material to get this easily right, this movie is ultimately just a basic series of face-offs between a hero and villain. A strong central performance isn’t enough to save this movie from a lackluster plot and a religious fervor that makes this move off-putting.
Harriet follows Minty Ross (Cynthia Erivo), a slave in Maryland, as she escapes from captivity, joins the Underground Railroad and eventually joins the Union army and becomes known by her free name, Harriet Tubman. The movie’s attempt at making this more than your typical biopic is a complete failure. The movie establishes Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) as a major character and the movie’s antagonist. The movie constantly switches between being a cat and mouse adventure between these two and then ultimately a series of face-offs between the two. For such a major subject matter, it’s really disappointing to see this movie cover the major relationship in Harriet Tubman’s life as being her relationship with her former owner.
Even worse is the movie’s over reliance on Christianity and religion. Christianity was a major factor in Tubman’s life, but here it’s used as a deus ex machine that fixes every issue that Tubman and the other protagonists run into. The movie is certainly preachy, and it’s to the point that it detracts from the movie rather than honoring Tubman’s religiousness.
It’s almost as if at every turn that this movie is trying to ruin Cynthia Erivo’s great work. Erivo really broke out last year with her work in Bad Times at the El Royale, and just like that performance this is another wide-ranging one. She gets to show off her incredible singing talents at multiple points in this movie but she is also asked to deliver a physically demanding performance that puts her through the ringer while also making you realize she could easily pull off an action star type of role.
Harriet features another strong performance from Cynthia Erivo, but she is too often asked to hold up a movie that falls apart in every other aspect.