Late into this film about the Underground Railroad’s most famous “worker,” the title hero turns to a group of frightened slaves she’s “stolen” and taken North and announces, “I’m Harriet Tubman, leader of this group. You do what I say!” Aglow in a sympathetic close-up, Cynthia Erivo projects determination. Yet this scene should feel more triumphant; instead, like most of Kasi Lemmons’ well-intentioned film, it plays like a Academy Award flashcard. Crippled by the inexorable momentum of the standard biopic’s rhythms, Harriet never startles: a movie about Tubman without a sense of danger.
Born Araminta “Minty” Ross on the Brodess farm in Bucktown, Maryland, Harriet was supposed to have been freed upon her mother’s forty-fifth birthday. When she and freedman husband John (Zackary Momoh) confront Mr. Brodess with a lawyer’s letter confirming this fact, he tears it up: she and her children will always be slaves. Adding a layer of complexity is the presence of Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), who like many Southern gentlemen grew up playing and praying with slaves his age but remains a product of a malignant system; unlike 12 Years a Slave (2013), Harriet wipes out any trace of eros, though.
A serious skull fracture suffered in childhood leads to periods of what we’d call blackouts but what Harriet believes are messages from the Lord she adores. Her faith, according to the film, literally leads her out of the wilderness to Philadelphia, where she falls in with the abolitionist movement: writer William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and boarding house proprietor Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Unable to shake the memory of John and the sister and mother she left behind, Harriet goes back over the Mason-Dixon line for them only to realize he’s remarried (Gideon and the other Southerners had presumed she died after she throws herself into the river escaping them). But with her trust in the Lord she takes this motley crew north, evading capture and a hot-in-pursuit Gideon. In admiration and fear she earns the nickname Moses.
Acknowledging that Harriet need not follow 12 Years a Slave or the often incoherent The Birth of a Nation (2016) should’ve given Lemmons plenty of chances to take risks. The perfunctory manner in which Lemmon stages Harriet’s vision quests accounts for much of the blahs. Consisting of birds awing shot against bodies of water or an ominous sky, these externalizations of Harriet’s spirituality don’t correspond to the terror of, say, running through an unfamiliar forest. Anthropomorphizing the fauna, animal life, and night sounds — a poetic approach — would’ve been a step toward breaking the biopic vise. Instead, she and cinematographer John Toll lean on The Glory of Nature calendar art. To visualize Harriet’s joy at finally reaching the North with a sunrise as obviously fake as any background in Gone with the Wind would have added a welcome intertextual irony: a female black filmmaker turning the 1939 picture’s Southern sympathies on their head. But the rest of Harriet can’t bear this weight.
Nevertheless, Harriet has made $41 million in domestic box office — impressive considering the subject matter — and earned a couple of Oscar nominations, including for Erivo as Best Actress. Her Harriet Tubman speaks in clipped, crisp tones; she conveys a sense of movement even in stillness. She has work to do and she’ll get it done if y’all stop getting in the way. The other performers impress in unfortunate ways. Alwyn and Monáe are too modern in their presences, their acting choices. A scene in which Marie talks and looks away while Harriet strips nude for a bath exemplifies Lemmons’ low-risk approach: would it have been out of character for Marie to sneak a peak? Screen acting depends on audience, actor, screenwriters, cinematographers, and directors collaborating on a persona, and we know how Monáe codes.
Meanwhile Harriet crawls to its preordained conclusion. Although the title cards remind us of Tubman’s role as a spy in the Civil War, they don’t mention how she spent the next four decades scraping by, unacknowledged and disgracefully compensated for the government in whose service she had risked her life. In 2017 Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin nixed the growing acceptance of the idea of putting her on the twenty-dollar bill: “This is something we’ll consider; right now we have a lot more important issues to focus on,” Mnuchin said, a Cabinet member working for a president with an imbecile’s admiration for Andrew Jackson. Perhaps Lemmons offered Harriet‘s safe, straightforward method as redress.