‘Harriet’ tries too hard to rewrite history

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 1:50pm

NOSELL

Focus Features

Seeing as it’s 2019, it’s really about time that a movie about Harriet Tubman was made. Most people only know Harriet Tubman for her role as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but as “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Black Nativity”), shows, she had a much greater story than that. Tubman did more than just lead slaves to free land; she led soldiers in the Civil War, she was an aggressive and powerful woman who didn’t let men tell her what she could and couldn’t do and above all, she had the utmost care and devotion for her family. Her story deserved to be played in theaters around the world. 

However, “Harriet” may not have been the best way to showcase it.

There seems to be a disconnect in the storytelling of the script and the action on screen. Any time Harriet is being chased by slave-catchers, we as an audience are supposed to feel suspense. We are supposed to hold our breath as we wait for her to reach safety. But when her running seems like a slow jog and the chase scenes are dragged out to the point of being unrealistic, the stakes feel lowered. It doesn’t feel like she is really being chased. It doesn’t feel like she is running for her life. These action scenes feel overly scripted and too careful to be believable, which is a major disappointment. 

The subpar action scenes and forced dialogue are, unfortunately, not the worst parts of the movie. The most devastating thing about the film is that there are parts of Harriet Tubman’s life that are fictionalized, over-exaggerated and entirely falsified for dramatic purpose. A central plot point of the film was Gideon Brodess’s (Joe Alwyn, “The Favourite”) pursuit of Harriet after her escape. Alwyn did a great job of portraying an obviously evil character with malicious intent, which makes the falsified part of his character so much worse. In the film, he is the son of her owner Edward Brodess, but in Harriet Tubman’s real life, Gideon Brodess did not exist. The character was added to the story for dramatic effect, which is disappointing, because Tubman’s inspiring life story should be enough in itself to be the plot of a film. Adding dramatizations seems to belittle what she actually did.

Similarly, the film portrays Harriet as having “spells” (following a childhood head injury) where she believes she can contact God and see the future. While in real life, Harriet Tubman did believe that she had a connection to God via these spells, the movie over-exaggerated her condition and made it seem like the only reason she had any success in freeing herself and other slaves was because of a semi-supernatural ability. Just as with the addition of Gideon Brodess, this undermines what she actually accomplished. In real life, she couldn’t actually see the future; she escaped and helped others escape because of her resourcefulness, stealth, and courage. In the movie, it seemed as though she only relied on a “super” ability to see into the future and contact God to be a successful Underground Railroad conductor.

The heartfelt acting was probably the film’s only redeeming quality. Cynthia Erivo (“Bad Times at El Royale”) did an excellent job in bringing an amazing woman to life on screen. Harriet’s love for her family and her unshakable faith in God were portrayed so believably on screen that as I watched Erivo act, it seemed like I was right there with Harriet Tubman, watching her accomplish such amazing achievements in life. 

“Harriet” enlightened me, and I’m sure many other viewers, about aspects of Harriet Tubman’s life that until now had gone mostly forgotten, but frankly, the fictionalized aspects of her story are unforgivable. Adding extra drama through a fake character and adding an almost supernatural quality to a real life human being makes Harriet Tubman’s story seem unrealistic. These additions to the story are disappointing, unnecessary and make for a rather disheartening viewing experience.