Harriet Tubman? She is one of the most prominent figures in American black history, at least as far as the names we learn in grade school text books go. It certainly seems like the kind of inspiring, historically important story that makes for an ideal Oscar-friendly movie. I guess the real reason it took until 2019 for Tubman's story to reach theater screens is the same reason Hollywood doesn't make many movies starring black women in general. “Harriet” was once primed as a vehicle for Viola Davis but ended up starring stage actress Cynthia Erivo. Erivo scored an Oscar nomination for both Best Actress and Best Original Song, which is about what I expected when the good-not-great reviews started rolling in last fall.
The film begins its coverage of Harriet Tubman's life when she is still known as Minty Ross, a slave on a farm in Maryland. Ross is married to a free man but remains a slave. When her owners refuse her requests to free herself and her family, Ross has had enough. She makes a dramatic escape from the farm, leaping from a bridge into a river. She makes the arduous journey to the North and chooses a new name for herself: Harriet Tubman. She returns to the south, as part of the Underground Railroad, to free her family and any other slaves she can get to freedom.
The Caveman's Valentine,” transforms American history into an almost superhero-esque action movie origin story. Tubman's historical nickname of “Moses” operates as a heroic code name of sorts. A head trauma suffered at the hands of her slave owner gives her reoccurring hallucinations, which are uncritically interpreted as visions from God – a superpower. Tubman even gets an easily recognized uniform, in the form of an askew fedora and a leather duster. This slickly commercial and potentially tasteless approach to history is most evident in the number of shoot-outs in the film and the way Tubman's former owners become obsessed with pursuing her. Of course, slave owners were absolutely garbage shit-people but 'Harriet” makes them so cartoonishly evil – turning them into real life supervillains – that it makes “Django Unchained” seem subtle in comparison. And that's all while maintaining a matinee-friendly PG-13 rating.
Once you look pass the superhero-fiication of Tubman, “Harriet” is as bland a biopic as you could imagine. Lemmons' direction is uninspired, full of melodramatic slow-motion. The musical score is blaring, always signaling to the viewer far in advance what emotions they should be feeling in any given minute. The writing condenses real life into a series of easily digested episodes. The film focuses in on Tubman rescuing her family, whittling her real life mission of freedom for all slaves down to a personal vendetta. Most of the dialogue is made up of rousing speeches and trailer-worthy declarations. When it's not adding action movie flourishes to history, the film is treating this tale as just another prestige-y biopic.
I'm not going to be the white nerd that says this movie doesn't have value. A film like this can act as a gateway for people, especially young people, to learn about real history. (I fully expect “Harriet” will be shown in many high school history classes.) Not to mention the obvious value in seeing a black woman in such as strong leading role. Yet I do find it distasteful to depict real history in such a sanitized, commercialized way. Slavery is the most hideous part of American history and I don't think a subject like that can fit into a family-friendly, franchise-ready mold. Films like “12 Years a Slave” prove you don't have to dumb down reality to reach people. “Harriet” is a mediocre film that I hope, at least, inspires discussion about the real facts of the people, time and places it is about. [5/10]