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‘Harriet’ tells tale of an American icon

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As we get deeper into fall, we find ourselves rapidly approaching awards season. This is when we’re going to start seeing an onslaught of prestige films, movies that merit a different sort of critical attention than the big-budget blockbusters of the summertime.

Biopics are particularly well-suited to the prestige game. They offer actors the opportunity to bring to life a real person, someone culturally important. They offer filmmakers a chance to tell a true and meaningful story in a manner that allows them to put their own personal stamp upon it. Sometimes, they become the primary way through which the world knows this person or people.

“Harriet” is the latest example of just such a biopic. It’s the story of Harriet Tubman, legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad and true American hero. It’s precisely the sort of movie that expects to generate some awards chatter. And it will – but likely less than the folks behind it may have hoped. Call it a hunch, but I feel like this is one of those attention-worthy projects that will fall through the cracks a little.

That’s not a condemnation – “Harriet” is quite a good film. It’s a nice-looking historical drama; the period aesthetic is exceptional. And the performances, led by Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, are good-to-great almost across the board. Director Kasi Lemmons – who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard – endows the project with her passion and talent. There’s a lot to like, and again, I won’t be surprised if it gets some attention.

I just won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, either. There’s a sense of familiarity here – the style, the choices, the narrative beats – that may breed just a little bit of contempt among awards voters. And that little bit could very well make the difference when nominations start landing.

In the late 1840s, a slave woman named Minty (Erivo) lives on a plantation run by the Brodess family. While she was allowed to marry her husband, a free black man named John Tubman (Zackary Momoh, “The Kill Team”), her own lack of freedom steadily grows more and more unbearable. The sinister and sneeringly dismissive attitude of Gideon Broduss (Joe Alwyn, “Mary Queen of Scots”), heir to the plantation, only serves to exacerbate matters.

It all comes to a head when she learns that she is to be sold farther south, removed from her family and everything she holds dear. Rather than submit to an unknown fate as another man’s chattel, she decides instead to run away.

And run she does. With some assistance from others along the way – most notably local preacher Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall, TV’s “For the People”), who steers her toward the path that will head her toward freedom – she makes her way across a hundred miles, through forests and across rivers, avoiding slave catchers as she goes.

She makes it all the way to Philadelphia, where she makes the acquaintance of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., “Only”), a free black and abolitionist who serves as one of the primary organizers of the Underground Railroad. When offered the opportunity to change her name, she chooses Harriet Tubman – Harriet for her mother and Tubman for her husband.

Harriet settles into life in Philadelphia, taking a bed in a rooming house run by a woman named Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae, “Welcome to Marwen”). She has a job and a home and a life of her own … but she misses her family. She asks William to send someone to free them, but he’s unable to commit to such a mission. So she goes after them herself.

From there, the legend of Harriet Tubman grows. She embarks upon multiple excursions south of the Mason-Dixon, becoming a legend, a mysterious figure known to the ever-more-infuriated slaveowning public as “Moses.” But there are those in her past who have never stopped looking for her – and are willing to do anything to wrest her new life away from her.

Perhaps the biggest issue from which “Harriet” suffers is the simple truth that her story is almost too outsized to be adequately rendered onscreen. This is a woman who lived a life that defies embellishment; hers is a tale that would be dismissed as implausible had it not, you know, ACTUALLY HAPPENED. And the filmmakers are very, almost painfully aware of the cultural and historical importance of their subject; that respect leads them to hold her at arm’s length, leaving certain depths unplumbed. The effort to render the narrative, while earnest and well-executed, can’t help but fall just a little bit short; the temptation to follow the established formula proves difficult to resist.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a worthy and worthwhile cinematic experience. Seeing the story of Harriet Tubman on the big screen, imperfect or otherwise, is a wonderful thing. And there are a lot of pros here. The period aesthetic is right on; it’s a wonderful work of production design. The score is haunting and compelling; music in general plays a huge and welcome part in this movie.

And of course, there are the performances. Erivo gives a tour de force performance as Harriet, capturing the larger-than-life qualities of the woman through an unwavering charisma. She is absolutely magnificent to watch, holding our attention with a constant thoughtful bravery. Her performance is the aspect of this film most likely to be recognized. But everyone brings something strong to the table – Odom, Alwyn, Monae and Curtis-Hall are highlights, but everybody shines.

“Harriet” can’t quite ascend to the top of the pedestal on which it has placed its subject – and really, how could it? But thanks to some thoughtful and talented filmmakers, along with an outstanding performance from its star, it gets fairly close – an accomplishment in and of itself.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 November 2019 07:31

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