TIFF Review: ‘Harriet’ Falls Short of its Heroine’s Greatness

2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As much as Hollywood tries to convince us otherwise, the world doesn’t need another biopic. But with a subject as underappreciated and vital to history as Harriet Tubman, a cinematic tribute is certainly justified. With Kasi Lemmons’Harriet,” that long overdue biopic of the legendary freedom fighter has finally arrived. But this underwhelming drama fails to truly capture the awe-inspiring efforts of its extraordinary heroine.

We meet Harriet as a slave, living with her family on a Maryland plantation in the 1840s. Dutifully performing her daily tasks, she dreams of the day when she can be free. But that day seems ever elusive, as her cruel master continues to exert his control over his human property. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Harriet hatches a plan to escape, trusting in her own willpower and God’s guidance to lead the way. Her dangerous journey successfully takes her to the storied “promised land” in the North. But Harriet feels unsatisfied with her good fortune and vows to return and deliver other slaves to freedom.It’s hardly a spoiler to report that Harriet is successful in her mission, her legendary actions leading to the bestowal of the biblical nickname Moses. Indeed, her reputation precedes her as a pioneer of the famed Underground Railroad one of the most impactful abolitionists. During her long life, she also fought for the Union army in the Civil War, among a number of other achievements.

Understandably, it is therefore nearly impossible to encompass the entirety of Harriet Tubman’s monumental life in a single film. But “Harriet” takes some curious shortcuts which limit the viewer’s full appreciation of her bravery. Most notably, the rushed first half fails to convey the treacherous journey she would surely have undertaken to initially secure her own freedom. Lacking the basic tensions of a good drama or thriller, Harriet’s seemingly spontaneous decision to venture north almost feels like an uneventful road trip. Though she meets a few detractors along the way, she emerges unscathed, with little depiction of the blood, sweat and tears one would associate with the long journey and harsh terrain. As such, when Tubman exclaims about the metaphorical hell she endured to attain her freedom, the scene struggles to resonate as it should.

Instead, Lemmons presents Tubman as a woman with god-given superhuman powers, emphasized by frequent visions and references to God’s protective power. Cynthia Erivo comfortably assumes the role with a powerfully defiant performance. Indeed, as Tubman comes into her own as a militaristic, gun-toting leader, Erivo and the film itself finally begin to approach the awe-inspiring magnitude of its heroine’s legend. But ultimately, it’s hard to feel disappointed by this film – especially when the superior TV series “Underground” exists – which underplays the difficulty of escaping slavery and the intricacies of the Underground Railroad. The world may not need more biopics, but Harriet Tubman’s epic life deserves a better cinematic attempt.

“Harriet” is distributed by Focus Features and opens nationwide November 1.

GRADE: (★½)

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