Dear Academy: Was ‘Harriet’ Really the Best of Black Cinema Last Year? (Guest Blog)

When it comes to black actors and Oscar nominations, the Academy seems to prefer black characters in chains or bursting out of them

Cynthia Erivo Harriet Tubman EGOT
Focus Features

Slavery and the Civil War are pivots of American history, and over the years, Hollywood has covered both from nearly every conceivable angle. There’s been the slaveholder perspective (“Gone with the Wind”), the slave perspective (“12 Years a Slave”), the Union and Confederate soldier perspective (“Journey to Shiloh,” “Cold Mountain,” the ’80s TV miniseries “North and South”), the Presidential perspective (“Lincoln”) and the Quentin Tarantino revenge-fantasy perspective (“Django Unchained”). After the Oscar haul of 2013’s definitive “12 Years a Slave,” the last thing we needed was yet another slave story.

But when it comes to black actors and Oscar nominations, the Academy seems to prefer black characters in chains or bursting out of them. Following a year brimming with a diverse slate of full-length features led by black actors (“Clemency,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Just Mercy,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Luce,” “Queen & Slim,” “Us,” and “Waves”), the only one to score an Oscar nomination was “Harriet,” a biopic featuring Cynthia Erivo as runaway slave-turned-iconic freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. It will compete in two categories on Feb. 9 (Best Original Song and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role).

Was the slave story good enough to be deemed last year’s best in shows? (Answer: No.) Although it connected with audiences enough to become a modest box office hit ($43 million and counting), “Harriet” is no masterpiece. It’s an old-fashioned “The King’s Speech”-style biopic that caters to the Academy’s predilection for movies about suffering Negroes and seems to have been constructed primarily for Oscar consideration.

That’s not to say the world didn’t need a movie about Tubman. Despite the breadth of Hollywood’s slavery coverage, something has been missing from its handling of the pre-Civil War years, namely its African-American heroes. Shockingly, we’ve yet to get a big-budget Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth biopic, and until “Harriet,” its subject’s work freeing hundreds of slaves via the Underground Railroad had been mostly ignored. When the studios finally got around to considering a Tubman biopic in the ’90s, a studio exec suggested the then-red-hot Julia Roberts to play her — before the idea was dropped. It took Viola Davis’ invoking Tubman’s name during her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech to remind Hollywood that this was a story worth telling.

But who was the actress to help tell it? Davis may have been the obvious choice, but Hollywood ended up going  across the Atlantic. Director Kasi Lemmons (best known for her undersung 1997 black Southern Gothic drama “Eve’s Bayou”) cast Erivo, an up-and-coming British actress who already has won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, and, incidentally, was Davis’ co-star in the 2018 film “Widows.” She not only stars in Harriet, but she co-wrote its Oscar-nominated song, “Stand Up.”

With so many black American actors starving for Oscar recognition, it’s a wonder that Hollywood keeps passing them over in favor of British actors when telling uniquely American stories about slavery and systemic racism in the U.S. In recent years, we’ve also seen Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave,” David Oyelowo in “Selma,” Ruth Negga in “Loving,” Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out” and “Queen & Slim,” Jodie Turner-Smith in “Queen & Slim.”

From a technical standpoint, Erivo did exactly what she was supposed to do. She knew her lines. She cried on cue. She bears a far more striking resemblance to the real Harriet Tubman than Julia Roberts. The problem with Erivo’s performance isn’t in her technique, which is bulletproof, but in her interpretation of an intangible deity rather than an actual person. Nobody knows how Tubman walked and talked and sang, as there is only scattered photographic documentation of her life. Instead of playing a woman we’ve seen in vintage film clips, Erivo plays the antique black-and-white-photo version of Tubman —  almost literally. It’s a two-dimensional take, all steely gaze and stern pout.

The “Harriet” version of Tubman is someone who knows she’s destined to be a legend. Lemmons and Erivo are understandably reverential, given that Tubman is probably the most significant black woman in U.S. history. However, their reverence undermines the complexity of her story.

The movie’s Tubman is strong, stoic and oh-so quotable. She’s a woman reconstructed to win big awards, not a living human being who does the sort of things that living human beings do. Her facial expressions always seem to be screaming, “This is an important moment.” She’s depicted as the first black action heroine, which Tubman might have been, but she was so much more. Ultimately, the movie feels more like hagiography than real biography.

In one scene, a white man brings her to the cusp of freedom and gives her the choice of riding with him over the border into Pennsylvania or walking there herself. Tubman, naturally, chooses the latter and tosses back her head and walks into the sun like a conquering queen, totally aware that a camera is capturing the moment to remember. It’s a lovely scene, but it doesn’t even remotely resemble how people act when a camera isn’t rolling.

But then, “Harriet” is more focused on magic moments than reality, or hardship, which is underplayed after her first great escape. We get a few beat-downs, and Tubman’s initial race to freedom is shown as the harrowing adventure it must have been. But her follow-up trips along the Underground Railroad are presented as relatively easy. One moment she’s rounding up the kinfolk in Maryland and crossing a river by the grace of God, and the next, they’re arriving at freedom in Philadelphia.

It all seems a bit too TV movie, with Tubman as an unflappable Superwoman rather than the determined but scared, vulnerable freedom fighter she must have been. Even after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 goes into effect, making the North no longer a viable option for escaped slaves and demanding a 600-mile escape route to the Canadian border, we’re told but not shown how daunting traveling 500 more miles to freedom must have been.

Last year’s much-maligned Best Picture Oscar winner “Green Book” presented jazz musician Don Shirley’s journey through the U.S. South in the early 1960s as far more challenging than most of Tubman’s freedom trips. The excellent 2018 documentary “Harriet Tubman: They Called Her Moses” recounts how Tubman fooled her would-be captors during one escape along the Underground Railroad by pretending to be a slave trying to capture a runaway chicken. The movie could have used more real-life details like that one – and the blow she received as a child which led to the lifelong fainting spells that the movie never really explains – to show that Tubman possessed strength and cunning that didn’t spring from divine intervention.

“Harriet” was perhaps destined to be a default Oscar nominee, given the Academy’s appetite for stories about the slave trade. Now that Oscar voters can tick acknowledging Tubman off the to-do list, maybe next year they can acknowledge black actors playing complicated characters whose onscreen lives aren’t completely defined by the actions of white people.