Wednesday, November 13, 2019

"Harriet" (2019) -- Initial Thoughts

Biopics are always tricky to balance.  You've got to remain fairly faithful to a the real events of the person's life, because if they're famous enough to have a movie made about them, they're famous enough that a LOT of people know a LOT about them.  They will be quick to point out your errors if you deviate too far from fact, or if you spin a story to suit an agenda that the person in question was not a part of.

But you also have to make the story of a real person's life interesting.  And real life has a lot of boring parts.  Even the real life of a famous, courageous, heroic person.  You need to tell a cohesive story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and some central message or point to your story.  Real life often lacks cohesion, messages, and points.  But a biopic is not a documentary -- it promises good storytelling, not a recitation of facts.  So you need to find a way to portray a person's life within the framework of a story.

Also, you need to be telling the audience something new, something that makes your movie worth seeing for those who are familiar with the story of your subject's life.

So much to balance.  So tricky.

So few biopics manage to balance all of that successfully.

I went to see Harriet (2019) this weekend.  Now, most of what I know about Harriet Tubman, I learned by reading my copy of Freedom Train (by Dorothy Sterling) over and over as a child.  I'm going to remedy that shortly -- I've put several books about her on hold at the library, but none of them are in yet.

Anyway.  I re-read Freedom Train today so I could refresh my memory as to the actual facts of Harriet Tubman's life.  It's a biography for kids, told like a story, but I trust it more than I do a movie, to be honest.  I'll review it on my book blog soon, on its own.  But if you're looking for a quick way to introduce yourself or a kid to Harriet Tubman's life, it's an excellent resource.

Okay, so the basic facts as presented by the movie were correct.  Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, escaped as a young woman, then became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and went back into the slave states to bring out her siblings and parents, plus many more.

But you know movie makers.  They love to spice things up.  I don't mean that in a sexual way, in this case, but in a "let's add something weird to make this movie more interesting."  As if the story of this brave, stubborn, intelligent woman wasn't actually interesting enough.  They took the fact that Harriet Tubman suffered a head injury that made her randomly fall asleep and they twisted that, giving her visions from God that aided and guided her.  They made her seem like a mystical, possibly delusional woman, and other characters dismiss her as crazy or brain-damaged or imagining things.

HOW IS THIS BETTER than the truth, that Harriet Tubman was a woman of indomitable courage and solid faith in God?  I think they were trying to make her seem "special" and "gifted," but to me, it does the opposite.  It makes it look like it's God, not Harriet Tubman, who's leading people to freedom.  They robbed her of her dignity and free will and turned her into a sort of sideshow curiosity.  In my opinion.  I was not a fan of this choice.

[EDIT: According to the book She Came to Slay by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Harriet Tubman did say she experienced visions when she was unconscious, which she believed came from God and often served as warnings about bad things about to happen.  So there is some basis in her life story for how they portray this in the film.  However, that book didn't say she ever invited the visions the way they show in the film, and they used these visions FAR too often as a sort of Deus ex machina to suddenly avert disasters, so I still say it's weak storytelling/writing.]

Now, the film on a whole is really good.  There are some amazing chase scenes, there's overall a lot of excellent acting, the music is great, and the pacing was very good indeed.  Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet as fierce and yet frightened, and I was fully invested in her portrayal, with the exception of the mystical visions from God, which I blame the screenwriters and so on for, not her.

Is this movie family friendly?  Wellllllllllllllllll... there's no nudity, and most violence is implied... but there's some pretty bad language (including the F-word), there are a lot of very tense chase scenes, some discussion of white masters having slave children who look like them, mention of young girls being raped, talk of spending money on whores, and several instances of seeing people's scars from whipping, burning, or other violence.  So I'd say it's not for children or younger teens.

14 comments:

  1. I want to see this, but I have a gut feeling it'd be too intense for me and I'd end up unhappy.

    I don't think the visions thing would bother me, but some of the other stuff WOULD . . . ah, well.

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    1. Katie, it's got some intense parts, but no more intense than a PG13 ought to be. Maybe on DVD? Does it help if you can pause a tense movie and walk away for a while?

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    2. It . . . doesn't really help, no :-/ Especially because the only time I really have to watch movies or TV shows at home is at bedtime, and I'm even more sensitive to intense content at that time of day?

      It's kind of a Catch-22, lol . . . don't wanna see the intense stuff IN the theater cuz it's too loud and I can't walk away, don't wanna see it OUT of the theater cuz I don't want to experience that in my bedroom alone at night . . .

      I have to avoid a lot of PG13 stuff for that reason. I think in the end, it just comes down to me having a really, really low threshold for "violent and scary content" on screen.

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    3. Katie, it's good you know that about yourself. Maybe you just need to find some movie-watching friends who you can watch stuff with in the daytime, at someone else's house?

      This does have some intense thriller-style stuff, people being hunted through the woods. So might be better avoided, for you.

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    4. That's a good idea, I'd like that a lot. I do occasionally get together with my friends and watch TV, and that's always fun, when we have the chance.

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  2. Thanks for the review, Rachel. I was hoping to be able to see this and like it, especially since some of it was filmed here in Virginia, but after your and Plugged In's reviews I'm thinking the content is going to be too much for me personally. Sigh.

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    1. EFB, I was excited that it was partially filmed here in VA too! I feel like they handled the content really well, if that helps -- I mean, we're dealing with slavery here, and all the evil that can entail. It was more tasteful and restrained than I was hoping, actually. But you know your own limits best.

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  3. I really want to see this, but I was wondering how accurate it was . . . Thanks for sharing your impressions!

    Why would they add that visions detail?? That seems like a strange choice on multiple levels.

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    1. Olivia, the visions thing bothers me more and more as I think about it. It acts as a huge deus ex machina several times. "They're going to get caught! They're walking into a trap! Oh, wait! Harriet's got a vision that there's danger and she's going the other way even though it seems to make no sense!" It's not great storytelling in any form, and it does bug me. Sigh.

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  4. Lovely post! Really enjoying your blog. Thanks for the share!

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  5. Really need to this movie. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. I just added this to my review, but am putting it in the comments here as well, for those of you who have already read this post and commented on it.

    According to the book She Came to Slay by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Harriet Tubman did say she experienced visions when she was unconscious, which she believed came from God and often served as warnings about bad things about to happen. So there is some basis in her life story for how they portray this in the film. However, that book didn't say she ever invited the visions the way they show in the film, and they used these visions FAR too often as a sort of Deus ex machina to suddenly avert disasters, so I still say it's weak storytelling/writing.

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