*This review contains spoilers for the plot of Harriet*
It’s no secret that Harriet, the 2019 Harriet Tubman biopic from Focus Features, has had problems from the beginning. From the first casting announcement of the film’s star, Tony award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo, controversy has followed the film. While some critics were disappointed that the Black British actress was chosen to play the African American icon, more vocal critics using the #HarrietDeservesBetter Twitter hashtag honed in on Erivo’s many controversial tweets over the years that negatively reference Black Americans as the main reason why they felt Erivo was the wrong choice.
At the end of August, Erivo co-signed her Harriet co-star Janelle Monáe’s tweet that there should be a voter registration booth inside of Popeyes (aimed at, presumably, Black Americans standing in long lines for the new chicken sandwich). After swift backlash, Both Monáe and Erivo apologized for their tweets.
Just a week later, as Harriet premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Deadline featured Erivo on its TIFF magazine cover along with the words, “How Cynthia Erivo overcame controversy to represent a great American hero.”
Still, the impact of Erivo’s tweets over the years has lingered. In a brief interview with Shadow And Act at TIFF, Erivo responded to the longtime Twitter controversy. “I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn’t take it lightly. I love this woman and I love Black people full stop,” Erivo told Shadow And Act. “It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself,” she said regarding ideas about her feelings toward African Americans.
“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant–and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”
(The 2013 tweet she’s referencing here is a response to actor Joel Montague who had asked Erivo to sing for him a song she wrote called “Signal”. Erivo tweeted back to him: “@JoelMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx”.)
When asked in a follow-up via email if Erivo had any response to the Black Americans who have read all of her tweets regarding British Black and African American relations over the years and did not feel they had taken her tweets out of context and were offended by them, no additional comment was provided.
Erivo spoke more generally of the controversy during our interview at TIFF:
“I would never…I’ve never spoken negatively about people because I don’t want that, I don’t want that energy from me to others. I don’t believe that serves us at all, I don’t believe it serves a purpose other than bringing negativity into my life and your life and I just don’t want that. And I’d also say, give it [the movie] a chance first. See it and judge from there. I would never have taken this role if I didn’t think I could give something. And it took a lot out of me to do it. You know? That’s it, really. All I can say is, give me a chance first,” she said.
Though the answers to the larger questions about Erivo’s specific conflicts with Black Americans online are more complex than just an evaluation of a performance, Erivo does give a perfectly competent performance as Harriet Tubman.
She is believable as a young, enslaved Harriet who is hopelessly in love with her free Black husband John Tubman (British actor Zackary Momoh). She’s also convincing as a badass freedom fighter who would, as the real Tubman did, point a pistol at a person who wanted to turn back to slavery instead of completing the journey to freedom. Erivo’s not alone in her commitment to the story-telling; Leslie Odom Jr. as abolitionist William Still and Clarke Peters* and Vanessa Bell-Calloway as Harriet’s parents, all give compelling performances with the material they have. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Harriet, outside of the Erivo controversy, is the material they have.
Iconic director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) had an enormous challenge in bringing the first biopic about Tubman to life. In an industry that historically depicts Black women as mammies, mules and other dehumanizing caricatures, the desire to show an extraordinary Black woman like Tubman in all of her super-humanity is understandable.
Tubman rescued hundreds of enslaved people during the Combahee River Raid that she led for the Union Army; after her first escape from slavery in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia, she made several more trips back to rescue enslaved people using the Underground Railroad network; She did all of this while dealing with brain damage caused when an overseer hit her in the head with a weight when she was a child; that head injury caused her to see visions that she felt were God talking to her and telling her which direction to run toward freedom. To call her a real-life superhero is not hyperbole.
But in a superhero story, what’s always most compelling is the superhero’s humanity. Instead, Harriet hyperfocuses on the superhuman elements of Tubman. The most evident way this happens is through the number of visions Harriet has in the film during moments where natural narrative tension could occur. Instead of building on that tension, Harriet’s visions act as an ex machina, with God supernaturally leading her out of the clutches of danger at almost every critical juncture. And by hyperfocusing on the superhuman elements of Tubman, as Harriet does, ironically, the impact is to further separate this icon from her humanity.
But Harriet was human. She was a mother. She was a wife. She was a daughter and a sister. And she was a devout believer in God, whom she believed spoke to her and guided her, giving her premonitions and visions. And while all of these relationships (except motherhood) are presented on-screen, none are developed long enough or with enough depth for the audience to connect with Harriet as a person.
Instead of being in the trenches with Harriet as she makes her grueling escape to freedom, we essentially only see her hop, skip and jump to Philadelphia in a matter of moments. We hear about how dangerous and impossible the journey was through dialogue. But what if we had stuck with Harriet as she found hiding places during the day, as she ran at night, as she sought to stay safe from wild animals she had to have encountered out in the wilderness who would’ve posed just as much of a danger to her as bounty hunters? That would’ve grounded Harriet in the real world, made way for natural narrative tension and created that connection between the audience and Harriet as a real person.
That connection is a vital part of what makes for an excellent biopic about an incredible person. When that connection is present, it can inspire people to seek out the greatness in themselves and rise to the occasion in their everyday lives. But if Harriet is a superhero, the audience is off the hook, with no reason to change or even reevaluate their lives. In these perilous times, with children in cages and imprisoned people living and working like enslaved people, a movie about the greatest freedom fighter to ever live ought not let its audience off the hook.
And yet it does, over and over and over again.
Natural narrative tension is replaced with contrivance. When young Harriet sees her overseer coming to sell her away from her husband and family, she has an overextended make-out session with her husband before she begins to run away. Another moment requiring Harriet to act with a sense of urgency is after she’s escaped to freedom and discovers that bounty hunters have come to Philadelphia to return Black people who have escaped back into slavery. While all the other escapees are piling onto a ship to take them to Canada right away, Harriet asks them all to wait a minute while she goes and says goodbye to her friend, Marie (Janelle Monáe). Though the choice makes no narrative sense–surely Marie would understand why a fleeing Harriet couldn’t safely say goodbye at that moment!–it’s soon clear that the reason Harriet nonsensically returns to Marie’s home is to bear witness to Marie’s murder by an overzealous Black bounty hunter (Omar J. Dorsey).
The murder of this Black woman was especially brutal, considering that up until that point, Lemmons chose not to display much of the physical violence of slavery in order to focus on the psychological and emotional trauma Black people suffered at the hands of white people. It’s also especially interesting that–in the hell that white supremacists built–the Big Bad of Harriet is a Black man.
While it’s great to see Dorsey’s range outside of the lovable characters he’s played on Queen Sugar and When They See Us this year, making him a Black bounty hunter hellbent on capturing or killing Harriet for money is certainly a…choice. In fact, it’s Harriet’s former enslaver who has to (graphically) shoot the Black bounty hunter in the head to stop the bounty hunter from killing Harriet. Sure, the enslaver has his own reasons for doing so that aren’t at all about keeping Harriet free, and sure, the enslaver was the sole reason the bounty hunter was hunting Harriet in the first place. Still, it is unsettling to watch this enslaver save Harriet’s life from a violent Black man.
Soon after, the tables are turned and the gun is in Harriet’s hands and she has the choice to shoot or not shoot her former enslaver who is seeking to enslave, rape, kill or do all three to her and many others. She lets him go with Michelle Obama-like ease and rides off into the sunset, victorious and holy. Killing white supremacists on screen isn’t quite what this revolution movie is all about.
The final scene shows an older Harriet commanding troops during the Civil War in the only U.S. battle led by a woman. Hundreds of Black people escape a plantation as Harriet and her troops shoot over their heads at charging Confederate soldiers. But outside of the rules of war, violence is reserved for Black people; brutal murder for Black women.
When the narrative issues couple with the musical ones, it’s hard to sit still to the end. The uneven score disturbed the flow of the film and felt far too modern without any indication that it should be. Whereas the opening scene of the Underground pilot started with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” setting the tone for the show, a montage of escape that happens towards the end of Harriet is inexplicably set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” adding yet another barrier to connection with this version of Harriet’s life.
A love for Harriet Tubman and a desire to tell her story are obviously present in Harriet. And Lemmons is forever in filmmaking canon. There will be many more films for Lemmons and hopefully for Harriet Tubman too. But this one is not the one.
Though Harriet has the ingredients for an impactful cinematic experience–an empowered Black woman protagonist, Black love and Black revolutionaries–the film has too many problems that were never resolved.
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
*This piece has been updated to reflect that Clarke Peters played Harriet’s father, not Vondie Curtis-Hall, as originally stated
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