I was really looking forward to this film. To me, the trailer made it look gritty and intense. I foolishly hoped and assumed we would be getting a deep dive into Harriet as a person and maybe some new information other than what we know from our history books. Turns out I was mostly wrong. To put it as respectfully as possible, Harriet is the Spark Notes of the Harriet Tubman Wikipedia page.
Throughout the film we see several flashback-type visions every time Harriet is coming into danger. This is supposed to represent God talking to her; aka, telling her that she's about to be in danger. That's pretty much the only depth we get to her character. The film also makes the whole rescue mission thing so easy for her, which makes it feel almost comedic at times. For example, we get this montage of her coming back with more and more people which eventually leads to Leslie Odom Jr. falling out of his chair. It felt like part of a Drunk History skit. There are times where the direction is fire, like when Harriet gives a great speech later on about not stopping until her people are free. While Kasi Lemmons still presents a coherent timeline of Harriet's journey, I wonder what parts of her research she may have been holding back.
Araminta (Minty) is a slave who is about to be sold down south to a new owner, away from her husband and family. To stop this, she makes a run for it. After arriving in Philadelphia and becoming a free woman, she decides to go back for her family. Despite being hunted down by her old owner and his bounty hunters, Harriet is determined to get them out and whoever else she can pick up along the way. The first act is strong and very promising, but as we edge into the second act, I realized I was watching a WTTW Masterpiece. While it's as historically accurate as can be without becoming a documentary or a Hollywood spectacle, it feels like the plot can't find a main focus. They want to tell us everything, but it feels like we're floating through time trying to cover ten years worth of events.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet is simply stunning. She brought a captivating performance that left me wanting more. She gets to do some pretty dope stuff to show off Harriet's boss ladiness. I just wish the story allowed for her to play around with the character and explore her beyond the surface. Janelle Monae didn't get a ton of screen time, but she shines intensely when she does. Leslie Odom Jr. is cinematic gold as William Still and was the perfect sidekick to Ervio.
Joe Alwyn's performance was pretty monotone. Sort of like that kid in a school play who reluctantly tries out but gets the part and now he has to suffer through it. Jennifer Nettles took me by surprise, but did not disappoint. The cast is rock solid, yet weave so well together.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score is confusing. I'm not sure what exact emotion it's trying to provoke. There's literally score throughout the entire thing. We don't need a piano ballad while Harriet's in the tub giving us back story. The scene where Harriet is in the office with the Philadelphia man almost feels like it's building for a comedic relief. It really only works dramatically and cinematically when she jumps the Pennsylvania border or crosses the river. Other than that, it's really over done. It sounds like the music in a generic educational film made for history classes.
I truly don't have much to say other than the overall look of the film was the strongest aspect. The cinematography was very consistent and the production design was top shelf. I very much enjoyed the costumes and the color palettes.
I really don't know how to explain what this film is other than a made-for-television movie with great acting. I think it works as a film, but I was left wanting more of the story; more of Harriet. Like I said before, I don't think this movie was pointless like some are making it out to be. Harriet very well could have used something to challenge the story and direction, but as far as historical films go, I'm glad we have it.