Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.
The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.
While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)
Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.