Just in time for the 23rd and four month Anniversary of the children’s educational film Animated Hero Classics: Harriet Tubman comes Harriet, a big, glossy version with live actors, from Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons.
I kid you not. Pull up the animated piece on YouTube and you’ll find Harriet follows segments of the animation almost shot-for-shot, like a storyboard. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. The story of Harriet Tubman is too little known considering how essential it is to American history, and this film seeks to make up for that depressing fact. It’s just a little odd to see famous actors and beautiful cinematography in a film written like a schoolbook.
I have to start by reminding the makers of period movies that Crest Whitestrips® did not exist in the 19thcentury! Enough with all the perfect, blazing white choppers on people, rich or poor, whose oral hygiene regimen consisted of mashing mint leaves around their teeth with sticks.
Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, with her brow permanently furrowed between worried and determined. It’s not much of a range, but we don’t have time for any fleeting pleasures that may have put joy on Harriet’s face, or for any defeat that may have left her sad. She is an Underground Railroad locomotive, pulling her charges swiftly and strongly, with no stops along the way from slavery to freedom.
After walking 100 miles to escape her Maryland plantation for the free north, Harriet joins the Underground Railroad in Philly. The first group she wants to help escape is her family back in Maryland, but the handsome railroad agent says it’s too dangerous. So Janelle Monae teaches Harriet how to use a gun, a scene that drew cheers from the two 8-year-old girls in front of me. (I guess that generation will be better prepared for #metoo…) Note, btw, that everyone in this movie is as social-media-post-worthy as Erivo and Monae. Even the evil slave-owner’s son looks like a swoony guy from a teen vampire movie, and if he wasn’t such a dick we might imagine him and Harriet hooking up.
But pretty actors and simplistic writing (“Fear is your enemy, Harriet”, etc.) won’t quite get you over the YA finish line, so Harriet is also given superpowers. She constantly escapes capture by using her Spidey sense, where she receives God-sent visions of the near future.
Her clandestine raids are also aided by the fact that plantation owners never seem to look out of their windows, or wonder why the slaves are gathering for mass at the slave church at 2am. These details are not important to the history, nor is the fact that the spy for the white people looks exactly like pre-surgery Michael Jackson or that when Harriet gets famous she nicks Erykah Badu’s look.
I get that movies like to polish true stories to attract us shiny-object addicts. But when we get titles at the end detailing Tubman’s further heroics during the Civil War (she led a regiment into battle for god’s sake!) it makes the film’s presentation of her all the more lacking.
Even if Tubman had spoken or written of visions, the filmmakers could have used their artistic license to leave the audience with more relatable inspiration, to show Harriet Tubman not as a woman being led around by divine intervention, but as the straight-up badass who powered her railroad with extraordinary – yet still human – cunning and muscle.
Harriet opens nationally tomorrow, November 1.
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