From The “A Sojourner’s Truth” File…By Sean E. Ali

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“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other”. ~ Harriet Tubman

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I’m not one for slavery era movies any more. The story has to be pretty damn catchy in general to pull me in and it had best be way off the standard slavery tropes for me to rave about it. “Buck and The Preacher” for example, is set in those times but deals with free blacks on a wagon train who are in a western setting that happens roughly after the formal end of slavery as an institution, but informally, was a long way from being a settled matter. “Roots” is linked to a larger story beyond the capture and breaking of Kunta Kinte by slavers and slavery and the generations that follow him up to and including Alex Haley. “Blazing Saddles” takes racism and shows us just how stupid and addled people are who subscribe to it. “Django Unchained” is pretty much the kind of slavery revenge story only a white guy could write and not have it be boycotted or sabotaged with bad press as the film opens.

HARRIET falls into a spot between slavery story, action adventure, and a light retelling (sort of) of the life and times of Harriet Tubman who has basically been a one sentence prompt on Black History Month and forgotten immediately after it was brought up for as long as I’ve been alive. The film was light on PR which should’ve been my first clue on what might lie ahead. Tubman’s not nearly as sacred as our other one sentence wonders: Martin Luther King (He was peaceful), Malcom X (He was angry), Ali (He was brash), Rosa Parks (She wouldn’t give up her seat), or Huey Newton (He was a crazy radical who died a drug addict); so if one took liberties well hey, it’s not like folks know her story all that well, right? So what HARRIET does instead is play the usual biopic game and go fast and loose with the facts. So what you get is a stirring adventure film with all of the heart and pathos of most slavery flicks you see in a by the numbers, you’ve seen this film before with minor variations end product that’s not bad to watch, but if you know anything about Tubman’s life, stretches details from that story into almost otherworldly abilities.

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It’s a fact that as a child, Tubman was struck in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man had thrown at one of his slaves who was trying to run from a store and escape. Harriet just happened to pass in the path of the throw and she was hit so hard, she claimed her skull was split open. She recovered but occasionally had seizures which she claimed showed her visions sent to her from God. In this film, that became a series of premonitions of events that were likely to happen at a later time. So these visions functioned a lot like Spider-Man’s “Spidey Sense”…

…or as I was calling it about a third of the way in: Slavery Sense. There’s an attempt to create a nemesis that Harriet faces constantly, Janelle Monae shows up in a pretty standard role for a singer migrating to actor. It has a moment or two of significance and she plays it well given what she had. Almost everyone in the film in fact turns in solid performances throughout. The film doesn’t suffer from a lack of talent, it suffers from a lack of expansion beyond slavery film clichés and thinking you can spend two hours on a one sentence summation of a life and somehow pretend it’s groundbreaking. If you had taken every detail or mention from Harriet Tubman’s life out of the movie and changed it to a supernatural story where a runaway slave gets glimpses of the future that help her and her friends escape to freedom and the woman who led them were named Esther…

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…I promise you, the reshoots wouldn’t be major problem and ESTHER would be part one of a trilogy where we’d have gotten a much broader story given to the fictional former slave than we did the actual one.

And with all the substitutions of actual people in Harriet’s life for proper villains to boo and hiss and Harriet’s choosing a really odd moment to make a speech in the final confrontation…

…well, at that point I was already accepting it as a fictionalization of fact, so okay.

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So am I saying to avoid HARRIET? From what I saw of my fellow moviegoers, who were mostly white middle-aged couples in a half empty theater, I won’t make that case since you weren’t going anyway, but no I can’t really make that call. The film wasn’t disrespectful, it wasn’t cringeworthy…

…it was incomplete.

And from where I sat it was decent, but a missed opportunity at the same time.

HARRIET could have been larger than life like the woman who inspired it…

…but it would’ve helped if they used the larger than life life that she actually lived.

It didn’t have a main villain, but it was more epic than this film played it.

You can spend your money on a matinee if you want to test the waters or wait for it on whatever streaming service you subscribe to. It was well acted, but probably not as ready for the big screen as maybe Netflix or Amazon Prime.

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