Kasi Lemmons stated that she wanted to make Harriet a superhero movie because she viewed Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) as a superhero. A valid belief considering the exploits of not just Harriet but the countless black men and women who came before and after her who took on the daunting struggle of civil rights for their people. Harriet for better or worse is an origin story.
Truth be told watching Harriet is an infuriating experience. At times it is tedious and plodding. Still, at others it becomes dangerously close to not just being fascinating but groundbreaking as well. It’s the latter that raises Harriet above its paint by numbers foundation while also reminding us of Lemmons’ earlier Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine.
Lemmons is the rare American director whose work can rightfully be labeled as Bergmanesque. A term referring to the great Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, a director whose films are marked by stark and sometimes abstract imagery which habitually move and haunt the corners of our subconscious. He is also a director who, along with Martin Scorsese, wrestles with questions of our mortality, morality, and of God.
Harriet has visions. Lemmons, who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard, try to frame it as her “super-power”. But Harriet herself frames it as the voice of God, helping her, guiding her, and speaking to her. The allegory is more Joan of Arc than it is anything Marvel or DC related. As she guides the slaves across the dangerous terrain that is the American countryside to freedom, she relies on God’s voice to not only lead her but to help detect danger.
William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is in awe of Harriet. She shows up at his front door illiterate, with tattered clothes, yet he cannot deny the light which shines from within her. He sends Harriet to stay with a free black woman, Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Marie is a woman of means despite the color of her skin. The two are in awe of Harriet’s journey and become devoted disciples as she turns back to rescue her family only to repeat the journey again and again.
Harriet’s insistence that God is speaking to her makes William and Marie uneasy but it also fascinates them. They can not explain her success but they also can not deny it either. Yet, this most fascinating aspect of Harriet exists on the fringes.
Maddeningly Lemmons is so focused on showing us how Harriet Tubman became Harriet Tubman she forgets to allow any of the characters, including Harriet herself, to breathe. But Lemmons’s innate talent is such that she can’t help to reach heights of cinematic lyricism periodically allowing us to forgive the sense of being rushed and boredom which settles in between these high points.
Harriet hides behind a tree at night and sings an old slave hymn calling to the slaves, alerting them to her presence. Some heed the call and some do not, but all hear the call and make the decision themselves. Erivo’s haunting voice rings out across the cotton fields as the black slaves freeze and look out across the land as if the very idea of freedom is calling them.
Erivo’s Harriet is stubborn, prideful, irrational, and at times unreasonable. In other words, she is a complex person and consequently whatever flaws Harriet may have, she is one of the more complete and three-dimensional performances of a black historical figure in recent history. She is not meant to be inspirational in the sense we are used to. Like David Olyelowo’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, she is allowed to have flaws, to be human in a way black historical figures are so rarely allowed to be.
But the script by Lemmons and Howard knocks the leg from underneath almost everybody involved. It rushes through Harriet’s life in order to get to the powerful moments while inventing moments clearly made to fabricate drama. But worse is the dialogue which, while at times, soaring, largely comes across as words forced into these characters in mouths. In other words, the characters speak as if they are reciting words from a script as opposed to speaking words from their own hearts or imaginations.
Still, a haunting lyricism will sometimes rear its head. Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a pastor who preaches to slaves they should obey their masters by day. By night his church is where runaway slaves can go to start their journey to freedom. He and Harriet keep in touch through letters.
In one of those letters he informs Harriet her sister has died, “She has gone to meet that good friend of the slave; the angel of death.” The line is haunting not because of it’s poetry but because of the harsh truth contained in its essence. The great sadness in Hall’s voice as it echoes over the image of Harriet being received by Congressman William Seward, the future chief of staff to Abraham Lincoln.
On the bright side, the worst and most shallow characters are the white ones. Fitting, considering the vault of cinema is all but overflowing with what we think about this time in our history. Indeed, I am happy to report that for the first time in my life I saw a movie about slavery in which the white actors were visibly uncomfortable uttering racial slurs.
These moments, as well as others, bring Harriet to a dull halt. Not the unease of uttering slurs so much as the characters are so flat, and frankly dull, we find ourselves trying to will the scene to end so we could get back to Harriet and her journey. But in other scenes characters who are not Harriet appear stilted or broadly drawn.
Take the Underground Railroad for instance. Lemmons and Howard’s script gives us a brief glimpse of the skeleton of how this vital and ingenious institution worked. We see montages of Harriet leading people through the woods at night. But little is discussed how it is kept intact, operated, or designed. Whether it is the same way every time or what if any are the contingency plans for unforeseen circumstances.
Lemmons utilizes Bill Toll’s camera at times to put us directly inside Harriet’s head. Wyatt Smith’s editing, Toll’s camera work, and Lemmons’ guidance make for some of the more striking moments of the film. The voice of God, Harriet’s intuition and troubled memories, are the most salient and thought-provoking images of the film. They lift us up and pull us in with pure imagery in a way most modern films have forgotten.
Toll’s camera work and Smith’s editing is straightforward but no less profound. Lemmons orchestrates a symphony of image, sound, and emotion, at times which make watching Harriet a singular profound experience. Harriet crossing the state line into freedom, her gaze into the bottomless depths of the muddy river beneath her, all of it makes for a deeply engaging and moving experience which will leave you breathless if we but open ourselves to Lemmon’s experiment.
Though the casting of Erivo does bring to light a troubling trend amongst Hollywood. Sooner, rather than later, we must have a conversation about why we are so ready to hire black British actors as opposed to black American ones. Erivo’s performance is miraculous and at times transcendent but remember the line, “She goes to meet that good friend of the slave; the angel of death.”
Generations of trauma echo throughout the family tree of black Americans. This is not to say being a non-American and black does not come with its own trauma. But it is inarguable that being both American and Black comes with a unique background and legacy. Kiki Layne, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Birgundi Baker, or Teyonah Parris could have played Harriet with no less aplomb. But they would have brought with it an intangible, not just the knowledge of a decimated people, but the understanding of it as well.
Tragically Harriet is marred by being the first so therefore it must not be experimental. It must be perfect and accurate in all ways. As mentioned in my review for Marshall there should be an entire cinematic universe telling these stories. As I would gladly pay to see a franchise about the cases of Thurgood Marshalls so would I also pay to see other movies about Harriet Tubman and other stories about the Underground Railroad.
An undue burden is placed upon Harriet which most other white films do not have to worry about. It must not just be good, it must be unequivocally a masterpiece. Instead what we got was a mixed bag by one of the most talented and scarce talents working today.
Harriet is a movie who’s failures are neither abject or uninteresting. It is unfortunate that it is the first movie about Harriet Tubman or the underground railroad. For had we lived in a world in which black filmmakers had been allowed to make as many movies about the black experience and black history with the same prolificness and budget as superhero movies maybe Harriet would be seen as the fascinating meditation on spirituality and character study that it ultimately is.