The Underground Railroad is one of the singularly bravest endeavors ever undertaken in U.S. history. Fear, torture, and death met runaway slaves at every turn in their quest for freedom. Harriet Tubman was not only a runaway herself, but a bold, prodigious conductor for the liberation of other African Americans. Tubman’s sacrifice and honor immeasurable, her name will be proclaimed throughout history, yet the film bearing her name, directed by Kasi Lemmons, doesn’t do her legacy as much justice.
A tale of slavery in America is nothing if it does not contemplate the unfathomable panic and seething rage of those who endured its atrocities. Lemmons’s film refuses to properly engage those emotions with any coherency.
The script disappoints most notably in its inability to excavate the personhood, not the legend, of Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo). The story labors to cement Harriet’s audacity for freedom in a supernatural guidance from God—in effect, to make her more divine than human. Monochrome shots of Harriet seeing the future are interspersed throughout the film. Not only is it confusing in chronicling the narrative—because they first come across as traumatic flashbacks—but it also seems to lessen Harriet’s agency in her own story. Perhaps she did believe she had a gift from God. However, the filmmakers’ decision to rely on this factor as her primal influence is ludicrous. Each sign from God hits Harriet like a That’s So Raven vision.
In fact, after Harriet’s own escape from slavery, the film becomes less and less concerned about capturing the pure terror that must have been the Underground Railroad. It glosses over each subsequent mission with a breezy finality that can be easily interpreted as “success.” Any bumps in the road in her quest to free other slaves are quickly smoothed out by one of her sensory alerts from God, warning her of trouble ahead.
The dynamic between Harriet and her former slave owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn) is a muddled mess, with his sadistic obsession with her that becomes the central conflict of the film. A mediocre male should not be the consistent struggle in a Harriet Tubman story. Alwyn’s portrayal as Harriet’s sole nemesis in her pursuit for freedom is ridiculous and flat. He clearly wants to give off the banal, smug-face evilness of a serial killer, but it comes across more like a bored, racist teenager.
Erivo as Harriet is the reverse side of the coin. At times, it seems like she is projecting with the intent of making sure the audience feels her emotions (perhaps due to her extensive stage background). Her singing is Tony Award-winning for a reason, though. Under the moniker “Moses, the slave stealer,” Harriet croons to her people in such a mesmeric way that it hypnotizes men and women to follow her, drawing them out of their work and homes.
Erivo’s voice combined with the soundtrack featuring old spirituals and Nina Simone’s phenomenal “Sinnerman” are the only bits of perfection. Still, the sound design’s overall lush and serious tone is severely hampered by using overdramatic theme music with cartoonish dun-dun-dun sounds to punctuate tense moments, such as when Harriet initially runs away from the plantation, or when she is about to jump off the bridge in her essential “freedom or death” scene. The music carries a lot of the emotional burden of this film, so these comical flourishes unavoidably cheapen the final effect.
Harriet is the kind of biography that skims the surface of the horrors of the past, while simultaneously venerating the hero in epic, godlike proportions. Though the film desires to have its story easily digested, some things need a little grit going down the hatch—and they make us better audiences for it.
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