- Reviews for “Harriet” say that Cynthia Erivo is fantastic playing Harriet Tubman, even if the rest of the movie seems rote.
- Critics generally agree that the movie’s biopic formula is serviceable at best, even as the performances are strong.
- Some take issue with how much of the narrative is dramatized while keeping the brutality of slavery in the background.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Harriet” is out this weekend. And along with shaking up the best actress Oscar race, it’s attracted some controversy for how it depicts Harriet Tubman’s story.
Most critics have praised Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Tubman, viewing it as a powerful portrayal of the former slave and abolitionist who defied death and smuggled dozens of slaves to freedom. It’s also a welcome return behind the camera for Kasi Lemmons, best known for directing “Eve’s Bayou” and “Black Nativity.”
But it has also received more lukewarm reception, with many critics viewing it as a cookie-cutter biopic. And on Twitter, one user who refuses to watch the movie has gone viral for criticizing it as a “white savior” movie, even though no critics who have actually seen the movie have described it as such.
Here’s what critics are saying about “Harriet.”
It’s great that this movie exists in the first place.
“Despite Tubman’s eventful and significant life, which most famously included a decade as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves to freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War, she has never been the subject of a big screen biopic before. So, as directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” is significant for the story it tells as much as if not more so than for the way it tells it. It’s an important and involving event because a mainstream, traditional film on this woman is way past long overdue.” – Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times
…but it’s a shame the story is wrapped in the biopic formula.
“Guided by an energizing gospel soundtrack, Tubman’s quest settles into inspiration-by-the-numbers as her operation gains momentum and she delivers a series of rousing speeches about the mission at hand … Still, the generic tropes of this old-school historical drama grow repetitive as the movie creeps toward a climactic showdown between Tubman and her former overseer. More than 20 years after ‘Eve’s Bayou,’ Lemmons has made her most conventional work, a feat of sturdy craftsmanship and performance with no fancy tricks.” – Eric Kohn at Indiewire
The movie isn’t as important as it needs to be.
“‘Harriet’ brings up a lot of questions about the purpose of slavery epics. Are they meant to entertain or to challenge? What is the purpose of a glossy, superheroic rendition of one of America’s most terrifying sins? How informative or realistic does it need to be? There are no easy answers to these questions, but ‘Harriet’ only highlights how this genre can fail despite the so-called important nature of the picture and a talented black director at the helm.” – Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture
Erivo is a fantastic leading actress.
“Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Hollywood loves an iconic biopic performance, but it’s long snubbed one of our country’s most badass historical icons. Cynthia Erivo’s towering performance in ‘Harriet’ changes all that. As the woman who escaped slavery in Maryland only to risk her life countless times going back to rescue fellow slaves, this British star of Broadway brings a gravity to the role that all but guarantees Oscar will come calling.” – Sara Stewart at the New York Post
Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. are also great in supporting roles.
“Continuing with the glowing praise as it relates to casting, the combination of Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. are so good in this movie, I can’t stand it. Odom features as William Still, a free man helping escaped slaves. Odom is a breath of fresh air in the part, injecting not only a likable sense of comedy, but a definite and palpable chemistry with Erivo. Meanwhile, Monáe is just… fabulous. That is all that can be said. It is her world, and we’re all just living in it.” – Kimberly Pierce at Geek Girl Authority
The movie makes Tubman seem mythical, which makes her impersonal.
“The result is a portrayal that’s so safe, so unwilling to take risks, and so earnest in telling its audience that Tubman was an American hero that it forgets to give the woman a personality. In ‘Harriet,’ Tubman gets to be determined, psychic, briefly heartbroken – and that’s about it. I daresay Tubman got better treatment in an episode of ‘Drunk History.'” – Soraya Nadia McDonald at The Undefeated
The story is made more exciting by using thriller-like setpieces.
“Director Lemmons frames many of Harriet’s harrowing rescue missions in fast-paced, quick-cut style, as if we’re watching a modern-day action movie, complete with a rousing albeit heavy-handed score from Terence Blanchard. (One narrow escape in particular defies plausibility and relies almost completely on a group of slave trackers being incredibly thick-headed – but it’s still a kick to see the villains outsmarted again and again.)” – Richard Roeper at the Chicago Sun-Times
It also glosses over the brutality of slavery, treating it as context but not depicting it.
“The movie’s depictions of slavery are predominantly passive. Throughout the film the escaped slaves talk about – and show – the scars from beatings. Harriet talks about her skull being fractured at a young age by an overseer. However, a truly important part of this narrative is the horror of slavery and in the film’s handling of it, some punches are definitely pulled. Would a more pointed handling of the topic have detracted from the narrative story? That’s difficult to tell as hindsight is twenty-twenty. Perspective is incredibly important to a movie like ‘Harriet’ and as is, it is a very uplifting and powerful story; however, it runs the risk of being an overly Hollywoodized retelling, and this falls to the audience to know their expectations. ” – Kimberly Piece at Geek Girl Authority
The movie keeps the violence restrained.
“The chases are suspenseful, and the violence is fairly restrained. The pain of enslavement is written on Erivo’s face and on the scarred bodies of the people Harriet brings out of bondage, but the full brutality of the masters and their minions is more implied than shown. “Harriet” isn’t an immersion in horror like Steve McQueen’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave,’ and it doesn’t have the imaginative sweep and complexity of literary depictions of slavery like Edward P. Jones’s ‘The Known World,’ Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad,’ or Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’ It is more like one of those biographies of historical figures intended for young readers: accessible, emotionally direct and artfully simplified.” – A.O. Scott at the New York Times
The script introduces too much fake drama.
“Tubman carried a pistol, as this film’s protagonist does, but her principal weapon was stealth. The script – co-written by Gregory Allen Howard, whose ‘Remember the Titans’ was almost entirely fiction – invents dramatic confrontations with slave holders and trackers. These would likely have turned out much worse for Tubman that they do here. But the principal reason they feel false is that they play like bits lifted from random chase flicks, not history. Tubman is even given a moment where she rides off on a white horse.” – Mark Jenkins at NPR
‘Harriet’ goes way too heavy on the saccharine score.
“This is Tubman’s story, not a comprehensive overview of the movement. But the film expresses implicit doubt that said story can stand on its own, overrelying on Terence Blanchard’s score to dictate emotional cues and cutting away to a parallel storyline involving Gideon, who the movie uses as an all-purpose representation of slavery’s evils and a sounding board at which Harriet can direct her declarations about the importance of freedom.” – Roxana Hadadi at the AV Club
It’s a nuanced look at the schisms within the black community at the time.
“Part of what proves interesting about ‘Harriet,’ even as you feel the film narrowing itself to the didactic needs of historical biopics, is the size of its thematic canvas. This isn’t merely a movie about the path from slavery to freedom. It’s a movie about the tensions between blacks who were born free versus those who were born in chains, about the gendered work of abolitionism, about laws shifting under the nation’s feet and paving the path to Civil War, making the lives of the formerly enslaved more dangerous by the minute.” – K. Austin Collins at Vanity Fair
“Harriet” is in theaters now.
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