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Harriet

Posted November 11, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s another of those times when I’m so far behind, there’s nothing to do but show up at the multiplex and see what’s playing at that exact moment. Today’s Cinema Grab Bag winner is Harriet, a biopic of Harriet Tubman. With the proliferation of black-centric cinema — especially with regards to Oscar vehicles — there’s no doubt whatsoever that this film was overdue.

Tubman herself is here immortalized by Cynthia Erivo, with Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae in supporting roles. The film was directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, who previously directed Talk to Me, and… uh… a handful of movies nobody would remember. Still, we’ve got a cast anchored by meteoric up-and-comers, the director is a black woman who’s previously shown tremendous potential (though her slim output has been uneven so far), and the timely subject is thoroughly fascinating.

Such a damn shame the end result falls so far short, compared to the sum of its parts.

To be entirely clear, there is a fair bit to like here. First and foremost is Cynthia Erivo, here making an awards play with gusto. She’s already earned a place on the A-list in record time, and her fearless, dynamic performance here should prove beyond a doubt that she’s the real deal. As for Odom and Monae, I’m sorry to say that they don’t have much to do, but they’re still performers of astonishing charisma and it’s always a treat to see them onscreen.

A particular highlight comes when Tubman — a year after her astonishing escape from slavery — goes back to try and free her husband (John, played by Zackary Momoh), only to find that he married someone else in the interim. On the one hand, of course Harriet is upset. Bad enough that her husband took another wife, she only found that out after risking life and limb over 100 miles of swamp and wilderness to see him again and try to get him out of slavery. On the other hand, she was legally declared dead (it’s a long story) and he had no reliable way of knowing she wasn’t. And as John himself points out, she was the first one to leave him.

It’s a beautifully nuanced moment that humanizes both characters to heartbreaking results. The unfortunate downside is that there are few such moments in the movie.

At every turn, the film shows a strictly bipolar morality on the issue of slavery. This is most especially obvious when we arrive at Philadelphia, here portrayed as a city in which black people are free to walk the streets as they please, commingling with white folk in peace. Like the New England city is some kind of abolitionist paradise, totally free of the racial prejudice consuming the rest of the nation. BITCH, PLEASE.

Then we have the matter of Walter and Bigger Long (respectively played by Henry Hunter Hall and Omar Dorsey), a couple of black men working as freelance slave trackers. First of all, there’s no evidence whatsoever that either of these men actually existed, which means that they must have been invented by the filmmakers to comment on the (uncommon but certainly not fictional) existence of black men selling out their own race. Why would any black men do this? I submit the possibility that it would be exceedingly hard for a free black man to find honest paying work, especially in the Deep South. If any such free black men were desperate, greedy, or conniving enough to take on an “us or them” mentality, I could totally understand why they’d take any money and put food on the table by any means necessary, even if it meant sending a black runaway back to the plantation.

I submit this possibility because the film never does. Indeed, both characters are quickly reduced to cardboard cutouts without any further examination of the larger issue. In point of fact, they contribute so little to the plot or the larger discussion of racist subjugation that they would’ve done more good on the cutting room floor.

Speaking of which, there’s a point in which the newly-minted runaway Harriet Tubman goes to an anti-slavery headquarters in Philadelphia, which is where the characters played by Odom and Monae come in. Having received advance notice of Tubman’s arrival, they’re ready with a paying job and an apartment all ready for her. Think about that.

With all recognition to the cruel and inhumane conditions that Tubman grew up in as a slave in the Deep South, she never had to worry about where her next meal was coming from. She never had to choose her own clothes, buy her own food, pay her own bills, or get her own job. She was born into slavery (ditto for pretty much all of the slaves that she rescued), and never had any of the responsibilities that come with freedom. Learning how to adapt to that could have made for some fantastic drama, but the film glosses over all of that to the point where it practically doesn’t exist.

Then we have our white slaveowners. From the moment when Gideon and Eliza Brodess are first introduced (respectively played by Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles), it’s perfectly clear that the filmmakers are not interested in portraying these characters as actual people. From start to finish, the slaveholders are all cartoonishly evil, chewing the scenery as they bring us exactly the same stereotypically irredeemable racists we’ve seen a million times before. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem here.

In one of many powerful Oscar Moments for Erivo (it literally ends with applause from the other characters), Harriet Tubman chews out a few dozen abolitionists because many of them haven’t seen or experienced slavery firsthand. Either that or many of them are runaway slaves who’ve been free for so long that they’ve forgotten what living in bondage is really like. On a meta level, it’s a powerful message for an audience many generations removed from institutional slavery, that never knew and could never imagine (or perhaps have selectively forgotten) the horrors inflicted upon the earliest African-Americans.

The first problem is that in overtly making that statement, the filmmakers are trying to position this movie as a reminder of the horrors that slaves witnessed firsthand. I’m sorry, but if 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Free State of Jones, The Birth of a Nation, and so many countless other films in that vein couldn’t do the job, what the hell kind of chance does this PG-13 movie have? Bad enough that the movie proclaims itself as an authentic portrayal of the evils of slavery when so many liberties have been taken in the adaptation, how could a polished mainstream Hollywood feature film accurately convey the grit and pain of the barbaric torture that was life as an American black slave? Even on the most basic technical level, how could an audio/visual medium like film successfully replicate the chronic visceral pain of work in the cotton fields and life under the whip?

And shit, you want to talk about how nobody in this day and age could understand the terrors of slavery firsthand? Tell that to the millions of people living in slavery right now, all over the world. Tell that to the victims and survivors of human trafficking. Tell that to the surviving protesters of the Civil Rights Movement. Tell that to anyone in this day and age who ever lost a job, lived through sexual assault/harassment, were unfairly arrested or even killed, or suffered through any number of ways in which people are routinely discriminated against because of their color.

This brings me to the single biggest problem of the movie, and it’s a problem the genre of race-oriented period films should have outgrown by now: It treats racism as a thing of the past. Everything pertaining to race in this movie extends to the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery in America, no further. Of course we know that’s bullshit.

Unarmed and innocent black people getting gunned down with impunity by white police officers is a problem. People getting kidnapped and sold into sex slavery is a problem. Immigrant children getting separated from their parents and forced into adoption by white families is a problem. White supremacists continuing to glorify fascism and institutional racism is a problem. Gerrymandering and vote suppression to effectively disenfranchise people of color is a problem.

Black slavery as it existed in the antebellum South is not a problem anymore (and hopefully never will be), but that’s where we started and this is where we are now. If the filmmakers weren’t going to try and make that connection, using the past to illuminate the present and figure out how we got here, then why did they even fucking bother?

But then we have the other side of the coin. See, it’s not enough to portray the slaveowners as two-dimensionally evil, the filmmakers had to portray Harriet Tubman as a literal saint. I’m not even remotely kidding. One character (A rabid slaveowner, no less!) even goes so far as to directly and explicitly compare her to freaking Joan of Arc.

It’s a matter of historical record that ever since her head wound as a child, Harriet Tubman often experienced visions and hallucinations. Tubman herself was deeply religious and claimed that these were messages from God. Incidentally, it’s perhaps worth noting that in some cultures (Hmong, for example), this is a common attitude toward epileptics, narcoleptics, and so on.

This movie runs with that and takes it to absurd lengths. Other critics have called it her “Spider-Sense”, and that really is more or less how it’s treated here. This portrayal of Tubman sees visions of things she couldn’t possibly know, averting threats through unlikely solutions like a literal deus ex machina. Nobody even questions it, except for one character who quickly shuts up when he witnesses one of her miracles.

Harriet is far too blunt and too self-important for its own good. There’s none of the nuance that might have humanized any of these fascinating historical figures, no subtlety or thoughtfulness that might have made the story relevant to a modern audience. Instead, the filmmakers took the most basic and cliched route, deifying Harriet Tubman while proclaiming “Black slavery was evil!” like they discovered the concept. Then they pat themselves on the back with one hand while grabbing for Oscar gold with the other. I know Green Book lowered the bar, but we seriously need Hollywood to try harder than this.

I can’t even recommend the film for Erivo, Odom, or Monae. Yes, all of them are wonderful here, but they’ve turned in better work elsewhere and I’m sure they’ve got so many better performances left in them for years to come. Only die-hard awards completionists need apply for this one.