A Harriet Tubman action-biopic was going to happen eventually, given the famous slave turned Underground Railroad conductor turned abolitionist turned Union scout turned suffragette’s extraordinary life story. It’s a shame that Kasi Lemmons’ take feels like the most standard possible version of Tubman’s story — a sanitized CliffsNotes version that features references to all the facts you’d learned from her second grade-level biography. It is, frankly, boring in the way toothless films tend to be, right up to the pre-credits text that states the number of slaves she rescued with some reference to her role as a Union spy. Well, of course.
Cynthia Erivo stars as Tubman and has gotten a nomination for Best Actress that the role really doesn’t deserve. It’s not that Erivo is bad; she’s just much better in more complex roles, including 2018’s Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. It’s probably nasty to say that her nomination — the only black actress in a year featuring innumerable great performances by women of color — was due to her playing a slave but … but … seriously. Erivo is strong here, but only as much so as the script — which more or less positions a complex historical figure as a superhero character.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of taking famous historical figures and winnowing their lives down to memorable bits and lessons learned. Such is the biopic genre. But for a woman like Tubman, whose influence spanned over 60 years and did not simply end after the Civil War, it seems reductive here to settle for the same old, same old. Making matters worse: Her villains — Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) and Eliza Brodess (Jennifer Nettles) — are woefully miscast, playing arch when Erivo is trying to elevate the material.
Lemmons’ direction and John Toll’s cinematography are both admirable but nothing particularly revelatory. Harriet moves. There are occasional moments of visual beauty but no guiding aesthetic beyond what is customary for movies that take place during this time period — perfectly suitable but failing to reach any height to which it aspires. There is a version of this story that does more than repeat the important beats about Tubman everyone always knows — one that digs deeper into her rebellion, into her character. Although the Fugitive Slave Act is mentioned and forms the catalyst for some of her adventures, the world Tubman inhabits here ultimately feels threatened by a small band of plantation owners. It’s all reduction. It has less scope than a basic documentary.
It will find a home in junior-high social studies classrooms as a movie to view a day or two before a vacation, during a unit on abolition that only scratches the surface of the era’s social and political issues.