Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 5 minutes, Director – Kasi Lemmons
Biopic of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) who after escaping from slavery led multiple missions to free others from the same lifestyle through the underground railroad.
The story of Harriet Tubman is one that is undeniably remarkable. Escaping from a lifetime of slavery in 1849, and then frequently returning back to Philadelphia to free not just her friends and family, but as many slaves as possible – never once loosing a life. The shoes of this character are evidently big ones to fill, however Cynthia Erivo, in her first feature leading role, absolutely commands every scene in which she appears. Showing the adamant hope and determination of her lead character in almost every frame she appears in, alongside singing a rather good song in the credits.
While Tubman’s feats are certainly astonishing, to say the least, the way that director and co-writer, along with Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons tackles the story an element of repetition almost begins to come into play. As Tubman, formerly known as Minty, begins to make multiple returns to Philadelphia to free more slaves in the middle of the night – soon gaining the name “Moses” – the film begins to dwell on the multiple escapes to freedom and the various routes taken through the gradually forming underground railroad. As the escapes become more frequent and detailed the feeling of repetition begins to sink in. And what was once a relatively tense and engaging element of the film turns into a somewhat lacking and at times lengthy piece near extended montage.
While this is something that almost begins to run throughout the entire rest of the film – such ideas feeling needlessly extended and not leaving time, or space, to focus on details without a great deal of focus and insight. Points such as Harriet’s general life in Philadelphia; something which is briefly shown, to establish her relationships with slave-freedom leader William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and boarding-house owner Marie (Janelle Monae), both of whom offer kindness and solace, despite Harriet’s continuing sense of longing for her friends and family. Despite her new friendships and life of freedom she still feels the need for those who were around her when she was a slave, setting out to free each one – something which takes up the majority of the run-time of the film.
It’s not until the end that we soon begin to get more information and detail into Harriet’s life in regards to the underground railroad, and her efforts outside of her multiple missions to eventually free over 70 people. It’s such moments that lack detail and almost seem to be rushed, so that the film can wrap up and try to stick to as close to two hours as possible. Nonetheless the film feels overlong and repetitive, leaving it with a feeling less powerful than the one that it possibly should have.
While at times it seems as if Harriet is aiming for tones and stylings similar to revenge westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – possibly remaining from initial attempts to make a biopic about Tubman with Allen Howard’s first screenplay for the film – while at others it seems to simply wander through the woods, much like its characters seem to do on some occasions, hoping to reach a point of safety. It occasionally feels rather tame, and therefore as if it’s being held back. And while some points are interesting and have enough for the audience to engage with the world as a whole, and with Harriet as a character – not so much anyone else due to little screen-time, despite the collection of good, passionate performances – the extended points do get in the way and create an overlong feel to what could be a more promising and dramatic film.
While it does have some interesting and tense moments, helped by Cynthia Erivo’s steadfast and passionate performance, the repetition and lengthy feel to much of the second act does get in the way of what could be a more promising and gripping biopic of a truly incredible woman.