By John H. Foote
Everyone I think wanted this to be a movie for the ages, a masterpiece documenting the life of the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a former slave from Maryland, who escaped across the state border into Pennsylvania, where slavery was outlawed and she could live free. Directed by the gifted Kari Lemmons, all eyes in Hollywood were on this one, hoping it would be as good as any film ever made, hoping it would be a worthy tribute to the fearless woman who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
We hoped Harriet (2019) would be a great film.
But, sadly, it is not…at all.
In fact, it is not the film we were hoping for at all, instead we get little more than a made for TV film with cartoonish slave owners who all but sprout horns and devils tails and a musical score that is the most overpowering mess of noise I have endured since The Color Purple (1985). A great score should enhance a film, compliment the action on the screen not beat us over the head with an emotion shtick telling us what to feel. The banjo-driven score for Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999) would have been perfect for this instead of the soaring score we get.
What was the immensely talented Kari Lemmons thinking?
In the lead role of Tubman, Cynthia Erivo is a revelation, elevating the film every time she is on screen, though her actions become redundant. The film never gets into the fierce mind of a woman who refused to leave others behind in chains, knowing what they are experiencing. She keeps going back, relentlessly, to the South knowing there is a price on her head, knowing if they catch the slave known as Moses, the name she gave herself, they would hang her, or worse. Tubman takes charge from the moment she is free, making a friend in a free black woman nicely portrayed by Janelle Monae, who admits to having no idea about the intensity of the culture shock Tubman is about to endure. She finds a job, works hard and decides she wants to be part of the Underground Railroad, helping to free runaway slaves.
She spent the rest of her life doing this, bringing slaves to freedom and safety before, and during the Civil War. If she is not an American hero then I do not know what constitutes a hero.
Erivo is superb with what she is given to do, but the screenplay never really digs deep into her soul, which is what I wanted. The actress will likely be an Oscar nominee if the voters choose to overlook the flaws of the movie.
Janelle Monae is very good as a free woman, who owns a boarding house and takes Tubman under her wing. She will prove to be equally fearless in a very different way, with tragic results.
Why are the plantation owners or slave owners all portrayed as vile beasts? Perhaps they were, but I do not believe that. While it takes an ugly human being to hold ownership of another human being simply because of their skin colour, were they all evil, moustache-twirling animals? I doubt it, but they are here. Even the treacherous black man betraying his own kind for money is not given any character other than the paper-thin one on the page!
There have been three major films about the Black slave experience that should have been great but were not. Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985) stripped the angry book of its power, its abuse, its lesbianism to become on-screen a colourful Disney like drama. Anchored by a brilliant Whoopi Goldberg performance, the films only saving grace, the film suffers from its Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah styling.
Beloved (1998) was based on the extraordinary Toni Morrison novel in which ghosts exist and the dead come back. Jonathan Demme created a frightening atmospheric film in which that world was vividly brought to life. But producer Oprah Winfrey, wearing her massive ego, cast herself in the lead role of Sethe, a woman who had murdered her own child rather than see her raised in slavery. Winfrey lacked the dramatic heft to portray the role and was a crushing disappointment. Had she truly wore her producer hat and cast the gifted Angela Bassett, you have a masterpiece because the great flaw and weakness is Winfrey.
And now Harriet.
Would could have been, what should have been a classic American film about one of the darkest events in history, is simply, not.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”