While Hollywood suffers from retreading similar ground in many of its films, no genre can frustrate audiences more than the biopic. The birth to death style of storytelling became fodder for prestige awards as far back as the industry has existed. Many associate the story with the derogatory phrase “Oscar bait,” in part because of the many performers who captured their golden statues thanks to these styles. This makes it surprising that Harriet Tubman of all people had to wait so long for her own film. With Harriet, the legendary American hero finally gets the big-screen treatment. Harriet mostly plays it safe but thanks to the rising star Cynthia Erivo, the film feels more substantial.
Harriet begins with the Tubman (Erivo) as a young slave girl on a plantation in Maryland. When the Brodess family, led by Gideon (Joe Alwyn), threatens to sell her, the young slave escapes to the North. While she secures her freedom, Tubman grows uneasy about her family remaining in slavery. Thanks to William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), she joins the Underground Railroad as a conductor. Over the next decade, Tubman becomes a hero and a legend as she rescues hundreds from slavery.
Erivo drives Harriet with her powerhouse performance. She dives into her diverse skillset to craft a dynamic performance. Utilizing her singing, she adds emotional depth and nuance to scenes of her escape. Erivo carries emotion and rage throughout the film, allowing it to slip out when she’s questioned. The Tony-winning actress keeps you glued to the film, and without her, it would lose energy. Thankfully, Erivo keeps the movie above water, allowing it to succeed because of her portrayal.
The rest of the cast does not get great material. While director Kasi Lemmons does not push the envelope too far on the style of the film, the screenplay could have existed thirty years ago. Despite dozens of unconventional biopics on important heroes, Harriet chooses the path of least resistance. We cover Tubman’s youth, rise, and challenges of her life. Yet it feels like a more substantial film could have represented the activist.
The biggest losers in this version of the story are Odom and Monáe. Each brings unique dynamics and charisma to their roles. Despite this, they get far too little screentime. Monáe gets one standout sequence but comes across as privileged and unfeeling for much her role. Meanwhile, Odom voices opposition to Harriet’s latest plans, despite the fact that we know of her success. The abundance of exposition and platitudes make Harriet feel like an action film, rather than a thoughtful exploration of Tubman.
Thanks to Erivo, Harriet has some life. Yet so much of the focus stems from people telling the beloved activist she cannot accomplish her goals, it becomes flat and predictable. Harriet gets the story right, and will surely have its fans. However, with so much talent involved, you’ll wish there was more to write home about. For Erivo, Harriet feels like a stepping stone towards her true breakthrough, when this should have been her rise to the top of Hollywood.