Movie Review: ‘Harriet’ is a Powerful But Flawed Account of an American Icon

It seems hard to believe that only now has a feature film been made about Harriet Tubman. After seeing the new movie, “Harriet,” I can see just how daunting it is to tell the story of such an extraordinary woman. I left the theater wishing it were three to four times as long as its two-hour running time. Despite everyone’s best efforts, there’s just no way to do Harriet Tubman justice in such a short number of minutes.

That said, there’s a lot to like about this “Harriet,” even though I take issue with some of the decisions made by screenwriters Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons (Lemmons also directed). My biggest issue was with the creation of the fictional character, Gideon Brodess, played by Joe Alwyn. He becomes a pivotal person in the life of this version of Harriet—her white slave-owner she has known for many years and who reveres her one moment and treats her like an animal the next.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

A scene late in the film in which she encounters him in the woods smacked as so untrue and so “Hollywood” to me that I immediately sought to find out if it could possibly have happened. I felt cheated when I found out that it couldn’t have because Gideon never existed.

I do understand why Howard and Lemmons made these kinds of choices. They wanted to make the story cinematic. They wanted it to move and hold the audience’s attention. They succeeded in this to a large degree, as the movie plays much like a thriller. I thought that was a smart choice, but I still would have preferred it to be more truthful and realistic.

Janelle Monáe stars as Marie Buchanon in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

What saves the film are the performances, particularly those of Janelle Monáe as a black woman who was born free and helps freed and escaped slaves survive, and of Cynthia Erivo, who embodies Harriet in a way that draws you in and makes you feel both her anguish and her immense courage.

In her hands, the story almost becomes a superhero movie that would put Marvel to shame. The real Harriet did indeed accomplish things that defied the odds in a superhuman way. That is absolutely true.

Leslie Odom Jr. stars as William Still in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The other actor getting top billing is Leslie Odom, Jr., an actor I’ve interviewed and followed for quite a while (long before his “Hamilton” fame). His work in “Harriet” as the real Philadelphia abolitionist William Still is excellent, but sadly, the two-hour running time didn’t allow the filmmakers to give him much dimension or character development.

While I don’t think “Harriet” is the last film that will or should be made about the great Harriet Tubman, it’s the first one we have. And I do think this version is worth seeing. Regardless of its flaws, it will take you on an important emotional journey that’s long overdue.

“Harriet” opens in theaters November 1, 2019.


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