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Film Review: Harriet

25 November 19 words: George White

Does abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman's remarkable life-story get the big screen treatment it deserves? In a word, no. 

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn

Running time: 125 mins

Harriet tells an incredibly striking historical story that feels increasingly poignant in today’s volatile political climate. It is a shame, then, that this remarkable tale is ineffectively delivered on the big screen, with poor pacing, a weak script and an overly Hollywood-ised approach leading to a disappointing cinematic experience. The true story is extraordinary; the film not so much. 

The movie follows Harriet Tubman in 19th century USA, who escapes slavery before dedicating her life to freeing other slaves. Tubman is undoubtedly one of the most important people in US history, helping to free hundreds from bondage and playing an important role in the American Civil War - and the eventual abolition of slavery in 1865. 

Tubman is portrayed by the marvellously talented Cynthia Erivo, who does her best with the script that she is given. Erivo’s commitment to the role is unquestionable, with her brave, unrelenting performance fully doing justice to the importance of this seminal figure. However, Erivo is somewhat let down by writers Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons, whose lack of subtlety leads to a relatively two-dimensional interpretation of Harriet’s character. 

Admittedly, the context of Harriet’s story is told with impressive tenacity, with Howard and Lemmons clearly demonstrating the horrors and inconceivability of the characters’ experiences. There are several moments throughout the film which leave the audience questioning how such events could have happened at any point in human history, never mind so recently, delivering an important message about the impact of toxic white supremacy and the need to tackle any attempts to see its rise to prominence once more.

Despite the cast’s best efforts, and some effective moments of storytelling, Harriet fails to fully live up to the scale and importance of Tubman’s story

Yet Tubman’s tale is arguably underserved by the quality of the rest of the film. The movie’s pacing is often cumbersome, with a slow first act and moderately messy second act saved only by an intense, fast-moving final half-hour. The film takes too long to get going, placing a needlessly excessive focus on the relationships between characters, rather than the astonishingly courageous acts of Tubman herself. The dialogue between characters often feels unnatural, with frequent attempts to provide sentimentality and introspection seeming out of place in supposedly realistic conversation. And there is a lot of running. So. Much. Running. 

Even the final act, which is by far the most impactful, is often over-dramatised, with a number of moments feeling unnecessarily Hollywood. The dynamism of the final thirty minutes is certainly enjoyable, but scenes such as Tubman slowly riding on horseback into the perfectly-framed sunset seem to pander to studios’ vision of filmmaking, straying from the more subtle, contemplative approach to biopic storytelling as used by other films. 

Nonetheless, Lemmons does nail the more technical elements of the film, teaming up with cinematographer John Toll to develop an immersively chaotic, ruthless world for its characters. The casting of these characters is also superb. Leslie Odom Jr. produces a composed, collected performance as abolitionist leader William Still, Janelle Monae leaves her mark in the rather restricted role of boarding house owner Marie Buchanon and Joe Alwyn is unsettlingly disturbing as slave-owner and all-round detestable human being, Gideon Brodess. 

Yet despite the cast’s best efforts, and some effective moments of storytelling, Harriet fails to fully live up to the scale and importance of Tubman’s story. Erivo is excellent in the titular role, but a shoddy script and poor pacing means her portrayal is less compelling than it could have been. The film tells important messages, but does so in a slow, often cumbersome manner, meaning Harriet’s powerful tale is ultimately underserved by this relatively weak retelling.

Did you know? Harriet Tubman really did experience visions as is depicted in the film, many historians claim that this is likely due to a head injury she received in her youth

Harriet is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 28 November

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