Austin Film Festival 2019 Review: HARRIET

4130_D002_00630_R Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

On the opening night of the festival Austin Film Festival Executive Director Barbara Morgan talked about this year’s lineup of films and mentioned that there are several titles which could qualify as “Oscar bait.” I definitely have to applaud the programmers this year for assembling a stellar lineup of marquee titles creating buzz for awards. Now, I don’t necessarily categorize top quality films as “Oscar bait,” because the true definition of bait means that things aren’t quite what they seem. Of the films I did see, only one earns this not-so-flattering description.

And yes, the movie I am referencing is the new biopic of Black slave liberator Harriet Tubman. Don’t get me completely wrong, this cinematic depiction of the famous and courageous abolitionist has its bonafide moments and has some laudable performances by the cast. However, the writing, direction, and occasionally the acting comes across as a desperate attempt to win that Oscar gold. This obvious and awkward awards baiting film just doesn’t completely succeed because it tries way too hard.

Cynthia Ervio stars as Tubman, a young slave who endures hardships and abuse as a slave, but manages to escape to freedom. Once free, Harriet returns South to free her husband John (Zachary Momoh) who remained on the plantation to allow her escape. Once she returns, though, she realizes that she can help release others desperate for freedom. Thus becomes the new destiny for the “woman called Moses,” a bold and brave woman who faced hazardous terrain and death threats to escort slaves along “The Underground Railroad.”

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote with George Allen Leonard, Harriet does entertain, occasionally enthralls, but also grates and frustrates. The ham-fisted writing and direction creates some all-too-obvious “Oscar moments” that come across as overly-theatrical and grandiose. I feel that some of these scenes are more appropriate for a stage production, but even then, some of these scenes would never have been approved by a solid theater director. Nevertheless, the story of Harriet Tubman is an inspiring one and this built-in advantage still comes across in a few crescendos.

Despite the problematic writing and direction, the entire cast does their best to give earnest performances. Cynthia Ervio performs well as the lead, embodying strength and courage in the face of danger and oppression. Leslie Odom stars as William Still, an northern abolitionist who introduces Harriet to other revolutionaries of “The Underground Railroad” movement. Odom has a great screen presence, but only gets to do so much with the filmmakers’ limited development of the character. Vanessa Bell Calloway and Clarke Peters offer solid work as Harriet’s parents Rit and Ben Ross. The film also features fine work by Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, and Jennifer Nettles.

Though I overall liked this movie, I had hoped for something better. Harriet Tubman was such a legendary and remarkable historical figure who deserves an outstanding film treatment. She represents the idea that revolution can be a wonderful thing when the establishment supports an immoral institution. This level of courage doesn’t occur that often that it should get honored and celebrated in the best ways possible. Though the filmmakers behind Harriet do try very hard, they seem to be doing so for the wrong reasons.

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