PG-13. It's a movie about slavery. The film establishes an America where cruelty is commonplace. The purpose of Harriet is to inspire and lead, which means that much of the violence and cruelty happens off camera. But there is an understanding that these are trying times and that absolute atrocities are being committed. There's some on-screen violence, but much of the disturbing stuff is implied through the showing of scars. Also, Harriet holds people at gunpoint. Couple what is common knowledge with a PG-13 rating, this is a tame film compared to what it could / should be.
DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons
The Oscars happened last night and I mostly got it wrong. I went gutsy this year. I bet on a lot that I wanted to win. A lot of the ones I actually won were picks that I knew would win, but probably didn't really care for. It doesn't matter, because I still have a lot of writing to do before this entire Oscar season is behind me. I might have had a chance to see this one for free early, which would have been rad. Regardless, I got this one in on Blu-ray before the Oscars went up. I'm kind of shocked it wasn't up for more than just Best Original Song and Best Actress, but I'm not going to fight that good fight. Instead, Harriet makes me ask different questions than I normally have to.
With a lot of biopics, there's a degree of predictability. It's why I have been complaining about the string of movies like Bohemian Rhapsody that seem to cover the same style of narrative over and over again. Harriet is running a bit parallel to that, but it is different enough that the effect on the audience is a bit different. While we may know some of the events in the life of Freddie Mercury, Harriet Tubman's life is kind of commonplace knowledge at this point. We, hopefully, were all taught something about Tubman's role in the Underground Railroad since childhood, which begs the question: "Where do we go from here?" If we know the story, what is the point of watching the story? As it turns out, there's a lot to be gleaned.
Because we know so much about the plot, much of the film is about building character. What kind of woman would Harriet Tubman have to be to endure all of these things. I can't help but make the comparison to Selma and its portrayal of Dr. King. (By the way, I'm near positive I wrote something on that, but Weebly is saying that I didn't. I may have to rewatch that in the near future.) Besides the fact that they were both heroes in the fight for equality, we knew both of their stories. Because we don't really have to worry about the narrative unfolding in a way that is unexpected, much of the stress falls on the actor to find something interesting to say about the protagonist. It's why Cynthia Erivo deserves attention when, perhaps the rest of the movie does not.
I'm still pretty shaky about saying that this isn't Best Picture worthy. But I also know that the Academy Awards, as much as I enjoy prepping for them, kind of miss the boat with some of their nominations. I keep falling back to I, Tonya in terms of movies that get nominations for other things besides Best Picture. While Harriet didn't destroy me, it is definitely a solid and important film, especially in light of how much I didn't care for Joker. I can't deny that the role of the Academy, especially with its Best Picture award, is fundamentally a quality award. But I tend to find that quality should be coupled with artistic merit. There's a reason that some things are in the canon and that some things aren't. Perhaps we tried too hard when Green Book won best picture (please read my "White Savior" reading into that movie). But Harriet is a movie that builds what we've almost started as treating like folklore and reminded us that this was a real lady doing insanely dangerous things.
Lemmons gets that Harriet is both a story about a woman who defied odds and that there was constantly a sense of danger to what she was doing. It's tough doing someone's entire life. Yeah, we don't see Harriet as a child, but she's pretty young at the beginning of the movie and she's pretty old at the end of the movie. I almost want this to be two movies in a way because the movie kind of suffers when it rushes these moments. Much of Tubman's work freeing slaves is told through montage. Montage makes sense. The story is about the person Harriet Tubman, not the legend Harriet Tubman. By focusing on those individual escapes, perhaps we would have gotten more emotional drama and suspense. But there also probably would have been diminishing returns knowing that Tubman escapes each time. It's such a bummer because I know why Lemmons decides to speed through those moments, but I want to experience them.
Similarly, the end of the movie is interesting as heck, and we only really get one moment of it. The movie ends with Harriet in the Northern army freeing slaves by the hundred. It's overwhelming how many people are running across that field as Harriet welcomes them. It's a great shot and I'm glad it is in the movie, but I also want to watch a movie about JUST THAT. We don't get much narrative of Harriet Tubman as a soldier during the Civil War. It probably would end up being wildly depressing or misrepresented. But there's this moment in the film that doesn't really fit with the rest of the throughline that the movie, up to that point, had established. It's so great and I wanted to have more of a transition into that moment. I wanted that moment to breathe and have its own sense of identity. Again, a two movie thing would have allowed the Civil War to become a more threatening thing than simply the historical marker that this movie provides.
One of the moments in the film that's a bit Hollywood-y is Tubman's relationship with Gideon. I get why Gideon is in the movie, despite the fact that he's probably one of the more fictional moments in the movie. Gideon acts as a perfect foil to Tubman. She's this strong, independent woman who was powerful, despite all that she had gone through. Gideon, as a child, was a friend to her. There's a line in the film where Gideon's father compares slavery to livestock and why it is dangerous to befriend a slave. It's really interesting. Gideon probably represents a lot of different people in Tubman's life. Despite the fact that he isn't actually a real character, he's based on probably a lot of truth. Gideon starts the movie thinking that he has been betrayed by his friend, but is completely unable to stand outside of himself and understand his very closeminded worldview.
I don't know why there are moments where Gideon is almost portrayed as sympathetic. The movie stresses how evil his father was and that his father corrupted him into doing these things. But Joe Alwyn plays him super evil. Like, super evil. There's never a moment where he questions anything that his father taught him. Why introduce all of that bad parenting stuff to the movie if Gideon is just going to be a monster from moment one to moment ten? I think that Gideon should be a monster and that people around Gideon should be equal monsters. The world is a terrible place filled with terrible people, so I have no problem with that portrayal. But why have all that stuff in the past about what he was versus what he could be? Maybe it is a commentary on how people were all inherently good, but then were corrupted over time. I don't know if that is exactly sold over the course of the film, but it's a thought.
There's never a time when the story of Harriet Tubman shouldn't be told. I'm actually floored that I can't think of another major release of the same story. The movie does everything right for the most part. There are things that could go better, but nothing is outright wrong here. The performances are pretty solid. The tale is riveting. It's a well made movie all around.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.