Movie review: Harriet [as in Tubman]

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet is phenomenal

HarrietThinking back on the movie Harriet, I had a sense I had seen a superhero movie. I don’t mean that necessarily as pejorative. Some comic characters have been bitten by a radioactive spider or slammed by gamma rays. Harriet Tubman, after a particularly nasty blow to the head, saw visions. This gift allowed her to escape enslavement, then lead others to freedom. A couple critics, I later learned, agree.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet is phenomenal. She previously won a Tony for playing Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway. Not only did she seem to physically embody the role, but she also sang some great versions of spirituals. The complaint that an American, rather than the London-born performer should have had the role of an iconic American hero is a debate others can have.

Director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons helmed the movie Eve’s Bayou (1997), which I recall as quite impressive. She also directed other things, including an episode of Luke Cage. She used a bit of nepotism, but her casting choices worked out well. Her husband, long-time actor Vondie Curtis-Hall was great as Reverend Green, and did a particularly effective call and response. Their son Henry Hunter Hall, as the scout Walter did NOT muck up his mom’s film.

Put her on the $20!

Harriet Tubman is an important historical figure who has long been deserving of a major motion picture, not to mention being put on the $20 bill. After we left the Spectrum Theatre, my wife expressed disappointment that the movie ended with a brief scene during the Civil War and nothing but screen descriptions of her active life thereafter.

Maybe that could be the focus of the next Harriet Tubman film. While the fans gave the movie a 97% positive ratings, the critics were only 72% positive. I must agree with some of the criticism. This includes the fine Leslie Odom, Jr., Tony winner for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, given almost nothing to do except responding to Harriet.

Susan Granger’s positive review says it best: “Inspirational biopic, hampered only by its simplified, conventional story-telling. Another favorable review, by Abbie Bernstein: “We come out of HARRIET feeling like we’ve seen something important that we ought to have seen. But we don’t feel like we’ve lived through it alongside any of its people, and it seems like that should have been part of the experience.”

It was important that the movie Harriet was made. Although it felt, inexplicably, at arm’s length, I was really glad to see it, as I learned quite a bit. I’d LOVE to see a sequel, perhaps focusing on her time in Auburn, NY; we’ve been to the house.