TIFF REVIEW – ‘Harriet’ is sadly as formulaic as biopics come

It’s fairly shameful it’s taken us this long for a biopic on a historical figure as important as Harriet Tubman. Practically every other key figure in the Civil War has been covered by cinema, yet not the abolitionist who still inspires people to this day. In fact, the only cinematic appearance of Tubman has been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role in 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Yep. That’s her current cinematic legacy.

The time has finally arrived for Tubman to have her moment on the big screen. Brought to life by a superb performance from Cynthia Erivo, it’s a mighty shame Tubman finds herself in such an uninspired and generic biopic as Harriet. As powerful and significant as her story may be, the film falls foul of an exhaustive number of biopic movie tropes we’ve all come to expect. Saddled with a screenplay that’s disappointingly bland and rushed, this is sadly as formulaic as biopics come.

Beginning in 1849, we find Maryland slave Araminta “Minty” Ross (Erivo) already striving for a life of freedom. With the help of her husband, John (Zackary Momoh), a free man, she has solicited legal advice to enact the terms of the will left by the great-grandfather of plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde), which stated Minty and her family were to have been freed years earlier.

Longing to start a family and have their children born into freedom, John peacefully pleads with Brodess to honour the will and release Minty from her servitude. But Brodess tears the will the shreds and cruelly refuses to give Minty the freedom she’s entitled to. Brodess instructs his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn) to keep a close eye on Minty, who he already has an unhealthy fixation with.

When tragedy strikes the Brodess family, the heartless Gideon puts Minty up for sale, leaving her with the possibility of never seeing her husband or family again. With no choice but to flee, Minty makes the daring decision to escape the plantation entirely alone, leaving John behind for fear his potential arrest would rob him of his freedom. After somehow surviving the arduous 100-mile trek to Philadelphia, Minty starts her new life by leaving behind her slave name, taking on her mother’s first name and her husband’s surname to become Harriet Tubman.

While in Philadelphia, Harriet finds support in Underground Railroad abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and boarding-house matriarch Marie Buchanon (an underused Janelle Monáe). But, as comfortable as her new life may be, Harriet pines for her husband and family. She soon becomes determined to rescue her family and bring them with her back to freedom in Philadelphia. Little does she realise it’s just the beginning of her newfound status as a savour of her people.

The inherent problem facing any biopic is scope. When you focus on a figure’s entire life, you run the risk of rushing through a narrative to cram everything in. And that’s precisely the issue with Harriet. While it wisely joins her life at the pivotal moment that sparked her path to freedom, it skims over so many of the important events that follow. You can’t help but feel Harriet’s life would be better suited to an epic eight-hour miniseries than a rushed two-hour film.

Harriet’s perilous journeys between Philadelphia and Maryland are the real crux of what made her life so tremendously inspiring and impressive. But writer/director Kasi Lemmons presents these moments as cliché chase scenes, robbing these moments of their true power. The dangers and challenges of Harriet’s voyages are barely touched upon, leaving us with the barest sense of the enormous hardships this incredible woman overcame in her quests that ultimately rescued over 300 slaves.

Instead, Lemmons is bluntly focussed on continually portraying Harriet’s frequent otherworldly visions as the major factor in helping the abolitionist achieve her missions. Throughout the film, Harriet falls into a trance and experiences images of the past, the future, or a combination of both before passing out on the ground. It’s an affliction she has suffered with since childhood, and no one can quite explain why.

A fiercely religious woman, Harriet believes these premonitions are her communications with God. In reality, they’re actually the result of a severe head injury she received as a child. Historians widely assume the traumatic injury caused Tubman to suffer a mild form of temporal lobe epilepsy, which prompted these seizure-induced visions. Yet here, they’re painted as if she’s some form of a saintly figure with a direct line to God.

There’s nothing wrong with subtlely deifying a historical figure, especially one who provides such hope and inspiration with her actions. But there’s nothing subtle in the religious connotations being drawn here. The jarring issue with using these visions in such fashion is that it almost suggests Harriet may not have been successful without her special gift leading her way.

There are times these visions magically guide Harriet to change direction and avoid capture, which is a baffling message to send. Ultimately, it undermines Harriet’s incredible efforts in the execution of these missions, while also reducing her accomplishments to factors of luck, chance, and, I guess, magic. Was it not enough to let her courage and skills stand on their own? Lemmons crafts these visions with such frenetic editing and a garish blue-tone wash, they pull you right out of the picture and eventually become rather tiresome.

But the film’s fatal flaw is its screenplay, which offers a story that’s surprisingly rather dull for such a life filled with incredible moments. Co-written by Gregory Allen Howard with Lemmons, it hits all the familiar beats you’re expecting, as it plods from one moment of Harriet’s life to the next without any semblance of an overall narrative. While historically accurate, everything here is entirely expected and far too safe. From the cruel racist slave owners to the empowering moments of reclamation, it all plays out in such formulaic style, you can practically guess what happens around each narrative corner.

And maybe there will be many who are entirely fine with such a conventional piece of cinema. Lemmons clearly cares for her protagonist and wants to highlight as many of Harriet’s accomplishments as she can cram into the film’s 125 minutes of screentime. But it’s done at the expense of truly showcasing Harriet for who she was, rather than just what she achieved. It doesn’t help the screenplay is overloaded with stilted dialogue that mostly seeks to provide exposition and little else.

What saves Harriet entirely is the impressive performance from Erivo, who finally takes the lead after dazzling with supporting turns in last year’s Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. In a powerful and stirring performance destined for attention this awards season, Erivo shines as a woman of fierce determination and uncompromising resolve. In scenes of anguish, she’s absolutely gripping, with every etch of Harriet’s emotions painted on her enormously expressive face. Lemmons wisely utilises Erivo’s remarkable voice (how can you not?) with a few moments of musical inclusions to elevate her performance even further.

In a rather disappointing film, Erivo’s performance is worth the price of admission alone. And the end credits roll with a soaring original song “Stand Up,” co-written by Erivo herself. It’s a shoo-in for a Best Original Song nomination, meaning Erivo could find herself a double nominee next year. She wants the O to complete her EGOT any way she damn well can. Still, it’s an important moment to finally see Harriet Tubman’s story on screen and that’s something to cheer for. If only the film itself could match the impeccable performance of its leading lady.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J. Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hill, Tim Guinee, Janelle Monae, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jennifer Nettles, Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, Michael Marunde, Tory Kittles, Zackary Momoh
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Producers: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard
Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Terence Blanchard
Production Design: Warren Alan Young
Editing: Wyatt Smith
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: 27th February (Australia)