Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
USA, 2019. Martin Chase Productions, New Balloon, Perfect World Pictures, Stay Gold Features. Story by Gregory Allen Howard, Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons. Cinematography by John Toll. Produced by Debra Martin Chase, Gregory Allen Howard, Daniela Taplin Lundberg. Music by Terence Blanchard. Production Design by Warren Alan Young. Costume Design by Paul Tazewell. Film Editing by Wyatt Smith. Academy Awards 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2019. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2019. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Hollywood biopics about Great Names In History have been common studio fare since the days of the great movie moguls, we often saw Louis B. Mayer and Darryl Zanuck bust out an intelligent and dull historical prestige picture for the purpose of winning awards (and the box office that this brings). Nothing much has changed: despite years of pre-production hell, a series of directors and a few alarming casting ideas (one studio executive suggested having Julia Roberts play the lead character), Harriet Tubman’s story is presented with as much unironic reverence and unimaginative direction as the clunkiest true-life dramas out there, surprisingly not benefiting from the presence of as gifted a filmmaker as Kasi Lemmons behind the camera. Her screenplay charts the period in Tubman’s life when she, a slave in mid-nineteenth century Maryland, decides to escape to freedom in Philadelphia and does so despite the great hardship of her journey, then risks her newfound freedom by going back to bring her husband to similar success. When that doesn’t turn out as expected, she instead takes her family members to freedom, and when that is miraculously accomplished, she makes a point of travelling up and down the coast line escorting slaves to the city of brotherly love (no cinematic use of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” has ever topped the heist sequence in The Thomas Crown Affair, but this film’s applying it to her rescue montage comes a close second). Meanwhile, Tubman’s previous enslavers are devastated by the economic loss to their already struggling plantation and their neighbours are beginning to get antsy about losing their own possessions in the same manner. What this film suffers from is an ambivalent attitude towards its genre, it operates for the most part like a sincere and straightforward celebration of this truly awe-inspiring woman while also trying to incorporate more eccentric elements, like Tubman’s “communications” with God that she believes are essential in her success (other sources say she used her knowledge of owl calls to guide her); one character questions whether or not physical abuse has damaged Tubman’s intellectual capacities when she claims these special powers, and Lemmons doesn’t want us to answer that question, placing her in a rarified place of her own as someone unique and magical whose success lies somewhere between her own strength and God’s blessing. Such loftiness would be acceptable if she were making a more philosophical film, but the lack of adornment to the by-the-numbers plot means that instead of a metaphysical miracle, Harriet just comes off painfully twee. Cynthia Erivo gives a committed performance in the lead but not a particularly interesting one, the role is written to be one-note and she doesn’t have the on-screen charisma to make more of it than what is there, while the evils of slavery are whittled down to the villainy of one character with whom she has her main conflict. This makes for tidy drama and a clean climax but it also makes for an age-old problem of making an institution as evil as slavery the responsibility of one errant individual and not something an entire society conspires to let thrive; slavery bolstered an entire economy regardless of whether or not the slavers were “nice” about it (the Benedict Cumberbatch character in 12 Years A Slave is maybe the first time this was accurately represented in a feature film). The greatest disappointment here, though, is that one of the most celebrated American individuals with as unique a track record of heroism as the country has ever known is the subject of a film that has nothing in it that you haven’t seen before.