Oscar Week Review – Harriet (2019)

films, reviews

5_star_rating_system_3_and_a_half_stars harrietfilmposterI know you’re probably getting sick of me banging on about diversity at the Oscars by now but I’m tired of hearing people say “it’s about quality, not diversity”. Yeah, in an ideal world. This isn’t an ideal world. What the people using that argument are either stubbornly, naively, or purposefully not seeing is that the system is weighted against diverse entries. The voting system is a joke. The first round lets all members of the Academy vote for whichever eligible films they want in their related categories. You don’t have to have seen all of the films. We know that a lot of members are quite traditional (see Martin Scorsese and his hatred of comic book movies) and have specific ideas of what should and shouldn’t be eligible (see Steven Spielberg’s comments on Netflix). How many of those eligible to vote will have bothered to go out and watch Hustlers to see that J Lo gave a much better performance than Scar Jo did in Jojo? We also know that Hollywood champions films that will make money and they don’t think films with diverse casts or storylines will make money. Then there are the smaller film companies who can’t afford to put on a huge campaign for their films/stars. They are blown out of the water by the bigger film studios who can shove their big-name stars in front of everyone. Look at Brad Pitt’s Oscars campaign this year. Flawless. Even down to his photos with ex-wife Jennifer Aniston. He’ll have had a great deal of backing. Smaller movies, less well-known actors won’t get that opportunity. Therefore, they don’t grab attention in the same way. The system is weighted towards a certain type of films and those films are, typically, not diverse. Those films don’t typically have female directors. So, stop saying it’s only about quality. Until we have a system that sees every film get a fair chance, diversity needs to be discussed.

Speaking of diversity, how has it taken so long for there to be a film about Harriet Tubman? There are some people in history who just deserve a film biopic. Harriet Tubman is definitely one of those people. Just look at the things she did. Born into slavery, Tubman managed to escape and started working with the Underground Railroad. Over 13 missions Harriet managed to save 70 enslaved people. She was an important figure in the abolitionist movement and thought nothing about putting herself in danger to save others. During the American Civil War, she was a scout and spy for the Union Army. She was the first women to lead an armed expedition in the war and she helped liberate more than 700 slaves. Tubman didn’t stop after the war either. She became an active part of the women’s suffrage movement. It’s no wonder she’s become such an icon and heroine.

This woman was a literal superhero. She deserved a decent movie that really got to the heart of who she was and what made her such an important part of history. Is Harriet this film? Yes and no. We have a situation in which we see the perfect actor playing the role but in a kind of underwhelming film. It’s not that Harriet isn’t good, it’s just that it’s too far-reaching. The film tries to take us through so much of Tubman’s life that we never really stop to consider her. It’s as if somebody worried that contemporary cinema audiences wouldn’t respond to the story if it didn’t read like an action film. That it needed to present the incidents of her life in a way that didn’t give them time to think about anything else. Harriet would have been a more successful film had it taken more time to breathe. If the story had focused on one part of her life.

Instead, the story opens with Harriet as a slave. We first see Harriet and her new husband, a freedman, imploring her master to free her. The couple wants to have children but they don’t want them to be born into slavery. When her master refuses, Harriet prays to God to smite the man for his villainy. When her master dies, his son decides to sell Harriet as a punishment. Since a head trauma years earlier, Harriet has had visions which she interprets as God speaking to her. When she has a vision of her escaping, Harriet decides to escape. She successfully makes it to Philadelphia where she can live as a free woman. But she worried about her husband and family, so Harriet decides to help them escape. This starts her work with the Underground Railroad. Yet, no matter how many years pass, Harriet is still being pursued by her former owner. Can she escape him?

What I will say about Harriet is that it reimagines the slave narrative. So many films focus so much on the pain and humiliation that the slaves suffered, Harriet is a film that focuses more on liberation and community. Though the film doesn’t ignore the awful conditions those in bondage had to put up with, it counterbalances it with a sense of hope and freedom. Something that is highlighted through the way that director Kasi Lemmons depicts the countryside that Harriet journeys through. The wide vistas of the south that sees her on her way to freedom are soon replaced with the river flowing North. Harriet is being guided away from her old life and it’s beautiful. Regardless of whether you believe Harriet’s assertion that her visions are the work of God or whether you believe it’s just brain damage. It feels like fate was leading her away so she could help so many others like her.

What really drives this film is the assured and unforgettable performance from Cynthia Erivo as Tubman herself. She is charismatic, strong, and ever so slightly vulnerable. She brings life to the film and it’s inspiring to watch her. And you can’t help but watch her. Especially in the later parts of the film when she finds her voice and starts to use her own power. I can’t see Erivo winning on Sunday but she would deserve to. Of course, she is aided by a great cast of people. Clarke Peters is wonderful and balanced as Harriet’s father. Janelle Monáe brings real humanity to the film as Marie Buchanon, the owner of a boarding-house where Harriet stays. Marie was born free and she has to rethink her opinions as she grows closer to Harriet. Finally, Leslie Odom Jr. plays Harriet’s fellow abolitionist, William Still. Odom Jr. is a solid performer and works well with Erivo. The three actors manage to bring real heart and humanity to the film. It’s just a shame that they didn’t get more chances to do so.

Harriet may not be quite the film that Harriet Tubman deserved but it’s a decent effort and one that I recommend watching. It gives us an unforgettable central performance and some luscious filmmaking. If it could only have slowed down slightly and let us see more of Harriet, this would have been perfect.

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