2020 Oscar Reviews: Harriet

Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…

Harriet

(2 nominations, including best actress – Cynthia Erivo, and best song)

Harriet

I was extremely excited about this film when I first heard it was coming out. Finally! If there is ever anyone who deserves a biopic, it’s Harriet Tubman. She’s arguably the biggest badass in all of American history. Her life was INCREDIBLE. She’s been a hero of mine (and pretty much everyone else on the planet, except for assholes) since I was a kid. This movie should be AMAZING.

Well…

The movie was…

fine. It was fine! The song is good. Erivo and the rest of the cast is fine. The story is fine. I can’t quite put my finger on why this fell a little flat for me, it just felt like things could have been a little more badass. I’ll try to articulate it as best as I can.

First, the dialogue and script felt forced and flimsy. Some small examples:
– There was one line (can’t quite remember now) that was so cheesy I guffawed (It might have been something like, “I don’t know you, but I know your heart.”)
– There was a particularly cringe-worthy monologue early on by a slave owner Gideon (played by Joe Alwyn) who approaches Harriet and lectures her for a couple minutes about how having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. Presumably this scene was supposed to illustrate the sort of complex relationships that many white children established when they grew up with their parents slaves as quasi-friends, which could have been a valuable contribution to the film, but was just too ham-handed.
– Leslie Odom Jr.’s character fluctuated between being a woke Underground Railroad leader, to being a surprised idiot every time Harriet does anything.
– Harriet gives a super passionate speech at an Underground Railroad meeting after the declaration of the Fugitive Slave Act. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to keep freeing slaves since the distance to travel (to Canada instead of Pennsylvania) is now longer, and she interrupts to yell at everyone about how bad slavery is. Ok, cool, but… these people are already trying to free slaves; this is just a logistics meeting. Why is this speech jammed in here all willy-nilly?
– Towards the end Harriet bursts into a room with two of Gideon’s brothers. But we’ve never seen these brothers before. It was just really weird to drop in characters like that out of the blue.

Second, there was a lot of attention paid to characters who didn’t exist in real life. Tubman’s own story is so lush and exciting that we really don’t need to make up this Gideon character to give is an antagonist. The whole movie is played like it’s Harriet versus Gideon. Fuck Gideon, we don’t need him. Same with the made-up character Marie Buchanan, played by the lovely Janelle Monae. She’s a freeborn black boarding house owner, which is a great character to come across to help provide some contrast to Tubman’s own experiences, but we don’t need entire story lines about her. Tubman and her story are compelling enough on their own, and every minute spent focused on fake characters was a minute NOT spend talking about badass stuff like Harriet’s role in the Civil War. Which leads me to…

Third, I would have loved to have seen a lot more of Tubman’s story. We pick up when she’s in her 20’s trying to negotiate her own freedom, and we end in some fuzzy time, presumably in the 1850’s? We then get a single scene at the end showing Tubman during the Civil War, and I think literally like 2 lines across the screen telling us about the rest of her life. That’s it. I think pretty much everyone in America knows the very basics of who Tubman was and what she did; she was an escaped slave who freed other slaves. And that’s pretty much the only thing about her shown here. This was a missed opportunity to present a fuller story and for us to learn a whole lot more. If anything…

Fourth, I felt like I came away LESS knowledgeable than I was before, because the film was such a mix of history and liberties, that I didn’t trust any of it. Introducing this extremely central but fictitious characters of Gideon and Marie leave me scratching my head about what else is wrong or right. Hollywood vs History helped with some of it; for example it was interesting to learn that Tubman really did hire a white lawyer when she was young (super interesting), and she really did have visions she believed were from God (also super interesting). But they changed the story of how Harriet received the childhood brain injury that led to the start of these visions. Why change that? Also, we meet two super interesting characters, Walter and Bigger Long, who would be fascinating were they real (can’t tell if they are). And the timeline is all kinds of wonky. We were even looking up timber wolves while watching (Harriet is warned of timber wolves, which don’t exist here in the midatlantic, but we learned that they lived here in the 19th century). And the scene where Harriet walks NORTH into Pennsylvania by walking INTO THE SUNSET (aka West) had us trying to pull of maps of her route. I still can’t figure out whether she crossed west from Delaware to Pennsylvania and then turned a hard right to get northeast to Philadelphia, which would make a walk into the subset possible, or whether she crossed north and the filmmakers were just taking liberties cuz the scene was pretty (which it definitely was.)

After all this whining, please remember that I did say the film was fine. Where it really shined for me was once Tubman got her groove as a conductor and we got a super cool montage of her rescuing people. Her outfits are a lot cooler by this point, too, and we’re facing a straight-up action star, complete with guns (which, FYI, the real Tubman absolutely DID carry). These scenes are the perfect example of how cool this movie COULD and SHOULD have been. Oh well. Maybe next time.

As for the nominations: Erivo unfortunately didn’t have much to work with here, so I unfortunately don’t think she stands a change against some of her competitors. The song, on the other hand, is pretty amazing, and is also performed by Erivo (which is pretty cool). Listen here:


2 thoughts on “2020 Oscar Reviews: Harriet

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