Review of Harriet (2019)

Moving picture, 125 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Seen in a sold-out Draken at GIFF.

The life of Harriet Tubman from 1849 to 1863: The badass years.

Despite the lack of subtitles at GIFF, the crowd response was the strongest of any film I saw there in 2020. This surprised me. As biopics go, this verges on hagiography, filmed with the narrative structure and composition of a 1920s/1930s melodrama, despite the modern cinematography capturing some natural beauty along the way. It’s intensely formulaic, including an evil central villain who happens to have grown up with Harriet and pursues her throughout, with lots of narrow escapes. The villain’s mother, played by Jennifer Nettles, is a much better, more realistic character: Selfish, status-conscious and sickened by guilt-induced fear of her slaves getting even what the law requires, but not stupid enough to bully them continuously.

The detail work is otherwise disappointing. Harriet’s jump into the Delaware seems to use no stunt work, just bad CGI for her body bobbing away. The only nuance permitted in the main character is the director’s Todorovian-fantastic refusal to confirm that Harriet’s visions of divine guidance come from Yahweh. Alas, there is no simpler explanation for their cinematic implementation. Indeed, one character asserts that Yahweh is anti-slavery, which is contradictory to The Bible (ca. 110 CE) as written. Like the villain of the piece, the portrayal of Christianity is hypocritical: The local slaves’ church features heavily, while the white folk’s church is never seen. They would have been preaching the same religion.

I don’t think this is quite what Howard Zinn was asking for in the talk entitled Stories Hollywood Never Tells (2001). The film does tell part of an important story, but that seems like a low bar to me. Harriet combines bits and pieces of The Color Purple (1985), Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) but does not reach their standard. It is at its best showing the high personal cost Harriet pays, not in worrying about her family but in the sheer effort she and her fellow liberators expend, and there isn’t enough of that material.

moving picture fiction