'Harriet' Biopic Falls Flat

'Harriet' Biopic Falls Flat

A mediocre film adaptation for a national icon.


Shallow, conventional, and uninspired.

These are the three words that came to my mind as the credits of Kasi Lemmons' Harriet rolled out onto the screen.

While not out-and-out "bad," and certainly entertaining, at the same time this failed fishing attempt for an Oscar denies Harriet Tubman that nuance and grace that her incredible life story deserves. This is a film without subtlety. And that is not to say that it is bold, which could be misconstrued as a compliment, but rather blunt, obvious, and one dimensional.

If you'd like to plop down on the couch and be blasted with a feel-good adventure and quasi-religious narrative where you won't have to think too hard, this is the movie for you. Shallow, uncomplicated, and formulaic. There's no shame in that. There are huge markets for these kinds of films, and at the end of the day, one of the biggest engines of the film industry is pure profit. Not everything thrown up onto the big screen has to be art.

In fact, if the film had been marketed as such and passed off as the uncomplicated, predictable one-woman heroine flick that it is, perhaps I would be speaking about the film more kindly. Unfortunately, the marketing for the film made it look like some heavy, sprawling thriller with high drama and a powerful action engine.

Instead, the Harriet that we received was flat in its action, deflated in its drama, and far less powerful a delivery of the tale of the woman called Moses than what said figure rightfully deserves. Perhaps that's my biggest gripe with the movie: that is gives this treatment to a story as epic, dramatic, and socially relevant as Harriet Tubman. As a teen and young adult, her story of escape and salvation is Joan of Arc-esque. As a woman, her legacy of military prowess is righteous but brittled by the horrors of the Civil War. As a grandmother, her legacy of heroism is a bright streak against a backdrop of continued racism and civil slaughter against her race.

There were a million different ways this movie could have been made. Give us that action-packed, high drama thriller we were promised of a young Harriet, religious inspiration and all. Give us a dark, gritty espionage and battle film of Tubman leading her brigade against the tyranny, complication, and tragedy of an enemy army comprised of foolish, ignorant young men unwittingly perpetuating a legacy of evil. Give us an old Tubman, Lincoln-esque, in a deep drama wherein the aging war-hero and national icon reflects on the terror, pain, and beauty of her life and the legacy she will leave behind.

Had you given any of us these, critics of the film would have treated it far more kindly. That being said, this film doesn't deserve hate of any kind. It's a mediocre movie that squandered an incredible collection of source material. That's all. These kinds of flops and disappointments are a dime a dozen. It doesn't deserve praise or hatred. Rather, it has well earned its mid-50s to 60s range of critical reception, with an understandably higher viewer satisfaction rating.

Keeping in mind leading actress Cynthia Erivo's inspired take on Harriet Tubman, as well as Janelle Monáe's ever-beautiful musical accompaniment (which I believe did win an Oscar for best original song), the film still summarily comes off as entirely mediocre. It's fine, I suppose, and has stirred up some necessary dialogue about filmic representation of blackness and black legacy.

However, the film itself, looking at it for its own merit and what it earns solely on its own account, hardly deserves the long and important discussions that it has helped to stir up. With that in mind, I'll keep this review as short and sweet as this one-note feel-good film itself deserves and leave you with a final send-off verdict: meh. I

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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