TIFF 2019 Exclusive : ‘Harriet’ Review

I wanted to love this film because I so admire the woman it is about. Harriet Tubman was a real-life hero, a force of nature who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1849, only to arrive in Philadelphia, create a new life as a free woman, and go back South to free more slaves. She became known as Moses to the slaves she sought to free and was both hated and hunted by the whites. It is an extraordinary story, this woman who became a driving force in the Underground Railroad and would live to be recognized as one of the Greatest abolitionists of that time.

 I wanted to love it, but I could not.

As a film, that story is wounded by a heavy-handed score from Terence Blanchard that does most of the thinking for the audience and a villain who might as well twirl his Simon Legree moustache as he hunts her down. One of the most annoying, intrusive scores I have heard since ‘The Color Purple’ (1985) I cringed as it swelled at every big moment, letting us know that what was happening on screen was indeed “a big dramatic moment” just in case we did not know.

Cynthia Erivo is splendid as Tubman, capturing that fierce sense of spirit the must have existed in such a woman and is clearly devoted to God. It was said she was blessed with visions of the immediate future, which helped her immeasurably with her leading the slaves out of the south. We never see what changes Tubman, other than the desire to get her family out and to free fellow human beings. The actress is excellent in the role and seems destiny for Oscar consideration. She brings a ferocious sense of pride to her character, which is matched only by her fearlessness. The actress never overplays a single emotional moment, she is quietly spectacular.

The film once thought to be an Oscar player, I doubt will be. It lacks so much and the villain of the piece is so one-note, lacking any dimension. He is angry Tubman left, angry she has ruined him financially but helping others escape, and when face to face with her rages that she has no fear. Any fear she has, by this time, was long gone, replaced by galvanizing courage.

Janelle Monae is lovely as her friend in Philadelphia, born a free woman, she guides Tubman through her new freedom in this growing city. Monae is a natural and has a bright career in film ahead of her. Kasi Lemmons directed the film, and I wonder if she loved her subject a little too much? When that happens, the film is altered, becoming too reverential, telling the story of a saint, which is precisely what happened with Gandhi (1982).

Bear in mind, the Academy adored Gandhi (1982) honouring that bloated reverential film with eight Academy Awards. Two of the films it bested, unfairly were ‘E. T.: The Extraterrestrial’ (1982), and ‘Tootsie’ (1982), both among the greatest American films ever made. It was described by along-standing Academy member as their way of honouring the man, in awarding the film. Just one year after the film won those eight, Academy members were sheepishly admitting “we blew it.” I believe they have learned their lesson and Harriet will not be in the mix.

What could have been a great film, falters, and instead, elevated by Erivo is a very good one, with a couple of flaws. Man, that dreadful score. Ugh.

That score…sheesh!

 

The Cinemawala Rating: 2/5

 

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