Harriet (2019) **

November 19th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Kasi Lemmons | Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Nettles, Mike Marunde, Joe Alwyn | Historical Drama | US 125′

Cynthia Erivo plays gutsy slavery heroine Harriet Tubman is this uninspiring biopic drama that feels lofty and pedantic rather than rousing and radically original. 

Harriet is the latest drama from Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons who squanders her big budget on flashy settings rather on script development and a cast to match Erivo’s nuanced appeal. Growing in stature from a lowly slave girl in the Deep South of 1849 to a commanding presence who leads 70 other workers to freedom – inspired by the past – (seen in vivid flashback), Erivo makes for a quietly convincing visionary, eventually gaining the nickname “Moses” from the plantation owners who are brought to their knees by her extraordinary will to free her fellow men and women.

Playing out as a heavy-handed historical potboiler against the glowering skies of the Deep South, Harriet occasionally hints at Porgy and Bess (1959) but never really achieves Preminger’s spirituality and dramatic heft, or that of 12 Years a Slave that conveyed the desperation of the down trodden and traumatised sub-class. Lemmons ticks off the boxes, cueing us all the time as to how we should feel; making her white men objectionable and ultra violent and her ‘people of colour’ benign and put-upon victims  – with only one exception.

Starting off in the household of the draconian plantation owners (Jennifer Nettles and Mike Marunde): this is a drama that gradually grows in proportions and ambitions finally rolling out its heroine’s achievements in the rather cramped third act that resorts to didacticism in pathing the way to Civil War, and further danger for the enslaved protagonists.

Lemmons, writing with Gregory Allan Howard, makes Erivo the uncontested standout in a morass of middling support performances, namely Joe Alwyn’s slave owner Gideon who is both her boss but also has unrequited passions fostered since their childhood growing up together on the plantation. Her husband (C J McBath) is an insignificant cypher who ends up marrying someone else, thinking she has run away, and disappeared forever. There is a muddled attempt to finesse the lines between black slaves and those who have never lived in bondage but are still not free, despite owning property. There are also black slave catchers, and the American equivalent of South African’s Cape Coloureds – those who have mixed parentage. All said and done, Harriet feels like it should be shown in classrooms rather than in movie theatres. Get the point? MT




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