Another film festival, another messy historical biopic. It seems to be the bread and butter of the film industry. If someone does something slightly different from the norm, they’ll definitely have a movie told about them.
That being said, it seems remiss that American hero Harriet Tubman hasn’t already had a film biopic about her. It seems even more remiss that this should be the cinematic outing Tubman gets.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet revolves around the extraordinary Harriet Tubman – a now iconic figure in American history. Born into slavery, her long-serving masters threaten to sell her after she is married to a free black man. Unable to stand the injustice anymore, she makes a hundred-mile trek to Philadelphia and becomes a free woman. Unable to stand being away from her family, she ventures back and is inspired to become the conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Harriet ticks many boxes when it comes to historical dramas that feature slavery. In many ways that is great, more films to showcase the harsh and brutal realities of slavery. In others, the formulaic script pulls at your attention and pushes it into a tedious territory. It’s boring.
The biggest flaw is that it preaches. Literally. Whether Harriet Tubman believed she was communicating with God or not, the story device doesn’t work here. Constantly having her steered by the Lord seems to overshadow her achievements. It happens so often in the film that it becomes silly, especially with this piano tinkle that undercuts it.
Sadly, Harriet feels messy. The sloppiness, at times, provoked slight titters from audience members. Imagine laughing at a film that features slavery. Though potential is clearly here, it sits on Cynthia Erivo’s powerful performance, which is incredible. It is just sad that it is wasted on a haphazard script, an overbearing score, and very badly made flashbacks.
Harriet screens as part of BFI London Film Festival.
Buy tickets now.