She Talks to Angels – Harriet

There are currently 15 people in the entertainment industry who have completed the illustrious EGOT cycle, winning a competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award (plus a further six who’ve accomplished the feat with non-competitive awards). Of this elite group, the youngest to complete the achievement is Robert Lopez, who won his first Oscar in 2014 for co-writing the hit song “Let it Go” from Frozen. This completed a cycle that began with the children’s show, Wonder Pets, and continued with the Broadway shows Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.

Lopez was 39 years old when he completed his EGOT, but his record is under threat thanks to the new film, Harriet, where star Cynthia Erivo may have two chances to earn her first hardware from the Academy. If she does so, she’ll shatter Lopez’s record by six years, as she’ll turn 33 in January.

Erivo shines as Harriet Tubman, in a story chronicling her escape from slavery, her official emancipation in Philadelphia, and her numerous trips back to Maryland to free others from bondage (for the purposes of the film, mostly friends and family). Throughout the film she gives a note-perfect performance, hammering home Tubman’s intelligence, strength, leadership abilities, vulnerability, and faith.

As is depicted often in the film, Harriet (or “Minty,” a shortened form of her slave name) has fainting spells, revealed later to be the result of a traumatic brain injury from her youth. However, in those dreams she sees visions of people and possible scenarios, leading her to believe they are premonitions from God. This is accurate to the life experience of Harriet Tubman, so I won’t knock it too much, though at times it does serve as a convenient way to advance the plot when there’s nothing more organic.

When she arrives in Philadelphia, she is welcomed by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist writer and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He records detailed histories of every freed slave he encounters, allowing them to reclaim their freedom and identity. He’s a fine enough character, but for the most part, after his introduction, he’s mostly there to caution Harriet against continued expeditions due to the danger, which only serves to set up applause lines like, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

That’s one of the two main drawbacks of the film. Erivo plays the character of Harriet Tubman at peak inspirational levels. Unfortunately, the film around her unfolds in pretty standard beats. This is meant to be a star-making feature for Erivo. It’s not the first we’ve seen so far this awards season, and it surely won’t be the last. I was just hoping that after the harrowing journey Tubman goes through to reach freedom (including jumping off a bridge into a raging river and surviving), that the rest of the film wouldn’t be quite so conventional.

The other ding is for historical accuracy. There’s always going to be some liberty taken with the facts for dramatic purposes, but there are some ways in which it goes a bit too far. For one, there’s the character of Marie Buchanon, played by Janelle Monáe. Marie runs a boarding house and was born a free woman in Philadelphia. She’s there to have a privileged life to contrast Harriet’s suffering, but also to be there as a friend and confidant, until of course she meets with ironic tragedy. Her character is completely made up for the film. I love Monáe both as a singer and as an actress. I just wish she had gotten more to do (especially with third top billing), and I wish her character was a real person.

Similarly, there’s Bigger Long, played by Omar Dorsey. He’s a slave tracker and bounty hunter, employed to track down “Moses,” the nickname given unbeknownst to Harriet as she continues to free slaves. Again, while it is possible that black slave trackers existed at the time – and they could only exist in border states like Maryland, because in the Deep South they’d simply be captured and resold into slavery themselves – he is again created out of thin air for the movie, and given that this is a movie about Harriet Tubman, having a big, burly black man be one of the villains seems oddly tone deaf.

Finally, there’s the Brodess family, Harriet’s former owners. Mother and widow Eliza is played by Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles, and basically spends the whole movie acting like Scarlett O’Hara and having emotional fits as her slaves are freed, as if she’s somehow the victim. Son Gideon is also completely made up. The Brodesses did have a son, but his name was Jonathan, and very little is known about him, per this article from Slate. In the movie, he’s played by Joe Alwyn, future subject of a Taylor Swift song. He’s a one-dimensional racist (between him and Bigger Long, there is no such thing as subtlety or nuance), and his voice reminds me of 90s one hit wonder Shawn Mullins:

But really, all that matters here is Erivo, and as I said, she may get two chances to beat Robert Lopez’s record for youngest EGOT winner. Not only does she give a nomination-worthy performance as one of America’s greatest heroes, but she also co-writes and performs “Stand Up,” which plays over the credits. That makes her eligible for Original Song as well. It really is a fantastic song. Much of the soundtrack during the film consists of traditional songs and old spirituals, as is appropriate for the period. “Stand Up” draws thematic inspiration from that material, and elevates it across the board. Erivo’s voice is spectacular, the minimalist piano accompanies beautifully, and the backing choir rises at just the right moments to hit you right at your core. There’s been a lot of great music in movies this year, and I would not be upset if this one was declared the best of the bunch.

As I said, this is Erivo’s spotlight, and she makes the most of it. She might get two bites at the apple to break the EGOT record, and she’d wholeheartedly deserve it if she does. The song is amazing, and her performance is one of the best of the year. The movie around her is pretty basic and formulaic, and one of her defining characteristics is used more as a plot device than as a means to develop the character, but all that is forgivable in the grander context of her performance. This is definitely a film worth seeing. It won’t be the most insightful two hours of your life, but you’ll be thoroughly entertained by Cynthia Erivo commanding your attention the whole way through.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What historical figures would you like to see made into a movie? How bad do you think the inevitable breakup song about Joe Alwyn will be? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “She Talks to Angels – Harriet

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