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Harriet review reveals cinematic exaggeration


     In recent years, the biopic (or biographical) film genre has seen a sizable resurgence in popularity as audiences have developed a renewed interest in historical cinema. Films such as First Man (2018), On the Basis of Sex (2018), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), and Judy (2019) have all graced the international community and received largely positive reviews. Among these films however, is one that has been the subject of no small controversy since its debut late last year: the Harriet Tubman biopic aptly titled Harriet.

     Being the devoted cinephile that I am, I naturally had to go watch it during its original theatrical run. After sitting through the roughly 2-hour film, I exited the theater quite happy with what I had seen. I wouldn’t say it struck me as a particularly remarkable film at the time, but I very much enjoyed its exceptional cast. I do truly mean it when I say the actors and actresses were near-perfect for their roles. Leading actress Cynthia Erivo fully blows her role as Harriet Tubman out of the water. Her portrayal is a little overly grand and dramatic at times (which I will return to momentarily), but she truly brings a long-gone figure to life once again. Her recreation of Tubman’s progression from a slave in rural Maryland to a nationally-renowned abolitionist leader is remarkable. The Oscar nomination she received was absolutely deserved. 

     The rest of the cast is quite exceptional as well, though not quite to Erivo’s level. The iconic Janelle Monáe is wonderful as the fictional character of Marie Buchanon, and Leslie Odom Jr. is equally great as abolitionist William Still. Even actors Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles are phenomenal at portraying Tubman’s despicable former owners, the Brodesses. I am not exaggerating in any manner when I say 

Harriet Graphic.JPG

Graphic by William Becker

that this film had an amazing cast, which is a compliment I don’t often dole out.    

     The film itself is also stylized quite beautifully despite its unpleasant subject matter. The shots are performed in a very artistic manner, often incorporating surrounding landscapes and scenery into the film. They also have a very personal feel, as many character-focused scenes are shot quite close to the actors which brings emotional states into sharper focus. The soundtrack compliments these components quite well, utilizing an unexpected but welcome combination of period music and modern tunes. Hats off to the production crew.

     Now, no article about Harriet would be complete without addressing its main controversy: Harriet Tubman is portrayed like a superhero. She’s made to be larger-than-life, bravely and often individually confronting her former captors and riding off on a figurative (and at one point, literal) white horse. Even the visions that she experienced as a result of a head injury sustained during her childhood are turned into superpowers, telling her the safest routes to guide others to freedom and giving her what appears to be flashes and glimpses of the future. In reality, Harriet Tubman did little to none of that. She quietly smuggled slaves north and survived from subtlety. This notion that she ran about pulling pistols on men simply isn’t accurate. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think this superhero-like portrayal of Tubman sat well with many viewers. Honestly, it doesn’t always sit perfectly with me.

     In considering this, however, one must take into account two things. First, Harriet (at least from my perspective) is not meant to be taken completely literally. Part of Erivo’s portrayal of Tubman in this film is almost meant to be more representative of all escaped slaves and those that helped them, not just Tubman. The scenes where Tubman’s character takes a sudden leap into the realm of heroism become more of a representation of how other former slaves perceived those who helped them, not just who they were in reality. This makes Harriet unique in that it is told from both the perspective of the main character and the perspective of those around them, unlike most biopics which stick to the former. 

     The second point which must be taken into account is the necessity of some embellishments when creating a biopic. The entire purpose of these films is to educate and bring awareness in an entertaining fashion to the subject or subjects, in this case Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Let’s face it: Tubman’s unedited story simply wouldn’t be as conventionally ‘exciting’ as this slightly modernized version was. Theater-goers wouldn’t be as interested in seeing what would essentially be a documentary. So in this case, I think making exaggerations for the sake of cinematic success and reach is justified. I didn’t always like the character exaggerations in Harriet, but I accepted them because of their cinematic necessity and partially figurative meaning.

     Overall, Harriet is an amazing film with a complicated mix of biopic character styles. On one hand, it greatly exaggerates who Harriet Tubman was. She is turned into this superhero-like figure who is sometimes quite distant from the real woman the film was based upon. On the other hand, the producers and directors have confirmed that this superhero-like origin story was quite intentional. 

     "Yes, it's a superhero journey, you know, and it's a real-life superheroine," director Kasi Lemmons said in an interview with NPR. “She was incredibly strong. She was incredibly tiny. And that was very important to me, you know, that this very small, very strong, very fierce woman was really doing this work in incredibly turbulent times.”

     How audiences receive this new look at Tubman’s life is something that continues to be hotly debated for the time being. What I can tell you is this: I really enjoyed Harriet and I think it stands as a very unique part of recent film history that I will continue to reflect upon from time to time. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, both for the sake of enjoyment and contemplating its unique cinematic perspective.

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