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Cynthia Erivo’s Performance Can’t Save “Harriet”

Harriet Tubman is an essential part of American history. You don’t get put on currency (or at least was supposed to be placed on it) for no reason. So, a cinematic telling of her story has been a long time coming. However, a traditional biopic was not the way to go. Despite a committed lead performance from Cynthia Erivo and a talented filmmaker behind the camera in Kasi Lemmons, Harriet winds up feeling like a garden variety biopic, never able to distinguish itself. Formulaic and generic when it needed to vibrant, the flick struggles mightily to overcome cliches. Tubman deserved better, even if everyone’s hearts here are very much in the right place.

The movie is a biopic of Harriet Tubman (Erivo). Before she was Harriet, she was Minty, a slave married to a free man in John (Zackary Momoh). In 1849, when and John are denied by plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde) the chance to leave in order to have children born free, a fire begins brewing in her. Edward’s son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) has long had a complicated fascination with Minty, sometimes defending her, sometimes persecuting her, but when events lead him to finally put her up for auction, she flees, leaving John behind to ensure his continued freedom. From there, the picture largely chronicles Gideon’s attempts to recapture here, as well as her evolution into Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad. Those sequences are mildly effective, though too often are shortchanged from being as thrilling as they otherwise might have. Lemmings directs a screenplay she co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard. Supporting players include Vanessa Bell Calloway, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Clark Peters, and more. John Toll handles the cinematography, while the score is by Terence Blanchard.

Cynthia Erivo does her best to rescue the film. She finds the passion in Tubman, though too often the script allows others to speak for her, or to conveniently make points she can rebuke. It’s all too on the nose, preventing you from truly being roused by the material. Then, there’s a truly egregious error at the end. During the postscript, an incredibly fascinating bit about Tubman’s life is briefly mentioned, one that would make a far superior cinematic work. Yes, that wasn’t Lemmons’ focus, but when gold is at your disposal, why not use it? Lemmons directs the work well enough, though her screenplay, co-written with Howard, is where things really come up short. The focus is just never on the most interesting elements of her life.

Harriet had the makings of a big time Academy Award player, though that’s mostly due to its prestige material, as opposed to the execution. Erivo should still contend for a Best Actress nomination and Best Original Song is on the table, but nothing else is likely to connect with voters. That’s what happens when the final product engenders respect at best, instead of adoration. Instead of making history come alive, the movie remains disappointing and static. Lemmons cast the flick very well, at least in terms of the lead with Erivo, but everything else wound up fairly down the middle, which is not how a modern day biopic usually finds much success.

Starting tomorrow, audiences can check out Harriet, when the biopic hits screens. At its best, it’s a star vehicle for Cynthia Erivo. At its worst, the film leans far too heavily into religion and never makes Harriet Tubman as fascinating a figure as she should be. All told, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience. The movie about Tubman audiences truly deserve is still to be made, that’s for sure…

Harriet is in theaters this weekend.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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