Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Harriet – a significant character in the road to abolition (UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 22 November)

Bringing historical characters – well known, or overlooked – to life has always been an important facet of cinema. A big personality can light up the screen. Their role in an already well understood moment of history can reveal new insights. Resonance with contemporary issues can be established. And filmmakers can sometimes even resist the temptation to make the film into a love-story.

Harriet explores the life of a Maryland slave, Mindy, who leaves behind her free husband and escapes north in 1949, travelling 100 miles to cross the state boundary into the more liberal Pennsylvania. Taking Harriet Tubman as her ‘free name’, the titular character insists on returning to rescue relatives, eventually joining the resistance movement and becoming one of the most prolific slave liberators of her time. Later federal legislative changes that allow slave-hunters to cross state boundaries, extend the dangerous journey of those fleeing Maryland, requiring travel to safety in Canada.

Cynthia Erivo plays Mindy/Harriet, capturing the tenacity and resilience of a woman who stands up to men who – even after she finds freedom – continue to tell her what she can’t do. She’s a passionate and no-nonsense leader, never wavering from her goal. Faith and premonitions are well integrated into Harriet’s story. The spiritual songs of the underground railroad (the network of safe houses and antislavery activists) are used to good effect, and inject some much-needed emotion into Kasi Lemmons’ film that quickly establishes itself as something of a docudrama rather than a gripping exposé of slavery and abolition.

The brutal treatment of slaves is mostly implicit. The legend of ‘Moses’ leading slaves to the promised land is established, with rampant sexism leading men to believe it was a white abolitionist in ‘blackface’ rather than a black woman. The roadblocks placed in the way of those who supported the abolition of slavery are laid out. However, the explanation of Harriet’s role in the American Civil War is disappointingly muddy, and the film relies on captions to establish the longer-lasting import of this figure’s work.

Harriet marks a significant character in the road to abolition. The film is an important history lesson. But its emotional grip on the audience is minimal. While Lemmons may have wanted to avoid making an action film that relied on sensational brutality for impact, his tale of slavery is somewhat underwhelming and oddly humdrum given the seriousness of the topic.

Harriet is released in UK and Irish cinemas including Movie House from 22 November.

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