Review: “Harriet”

4 out of 5 stars.

Harriet Tubman is one of the most influential figures in American history, so it’s kind of wild that there had never been a feature film biopic made about her until now.  But the simply titled “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, is a fitting if formulaic ode to a great American hero, anchored by a powerhouse performance by Cynthia Erivo.

When the film opens, Harriet Tubman (Erivo) is a slave on a Maryland plantation—in fact, she’d been a slave there all her life.  When she and her free husband John (Zackary Momoh) petition for her freedom so any children they have together will also be free, she is punished by her cruel master, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn).  When Harriet, then going by the name Minty, finds out she is to be sold and separated from her family and husband, she plans a daring escape up north to freedom.  But after reaching Philadelphia, she longs for her family, and returns to the south to get them.  These trips result in abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) making the newly named Harriet, who is also called Moses for her success at bringing so many slaves to freedom, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a series of safehouses and roads used to ferry slaves up north.  All the while, Gideon, holding a grudge all this time, still pursues Harriet and punishes any of her family still working at his plantation.

Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) brings slaves to freedom in “Harriet”

“Harriet” gets a remarkable amount of facts right about Tubman, which makes the film both entertaining and enlightening, especially since most schools only teach the bare bones facts about her work with the Underground Railroad, for which she was the most successful conductor.  But did you also know that she was a spy in the Union Army during the Civil War, leading a raid that freed more than 700 slaves?  Harriet’s religion and belief that God speaks to her is also a major part of the movie, as she often pauses in the middle of the action to allow a series of images of what’s to happen and what to do come to her.  This all makes it easy to see this movie becoming a staple in history classrooms, especially since in terms of violence and language, it’s pretty tame.  We get a sense of the abuse slaves suffered at the hands of their white masters through anecdotes, and there is a lot of horrifying verbal abuse, but compared to recent films like “12 Years a Slave” that graphically depict the awful violent inflicted on slaves, “Harriet” does tone down the subject matter a bit.  But it certainly never sugar-coats the issue, and it is nice to have this movie about this amazing woman that is appropriate to show to younger people.

“Harriet” also lets its black characters carry the bulk of the movie.  While there is a white antagonist in Gideon (and also a black slave hunter, a choice that still has me scratching my head) and we see white abolitionists help Harriet on her journey, the movie is never about them.  The focus always remains on Harriet and her family, as well as the black supporting characters, like Odom’s Still and Janelle Monáe’s Marie Buchanon, the proprietor of an inn who takes Harriet in and becomes her close friend.  There’s also an interesting contrast between the slaves who are willing to risk everything for freedom, and those like Harriet’s sister Rachel, who are too afraid to take the chance, especially for the sake of their children.  Vondie Curtis-Hall has a solid supporting role as Reverend Samuel Green, who preaches obedience while the masters are listening but secretly aids any slaves trying to get to freedom, and Clarke Peters, who plays Harriet’s father Ben in a performance that is both gently amusing and very touching.

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) guides a battalion of soldiers in a raid during the Civil War

But Erivo really sells the movie as the titular character.  Having already won a Best Actress Tony for the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” Erivo—who also gets to sing a bit in this movie—has been gradually becoming a bigger name in movies, and rightly so.  She portrays Harriet as brave, but not without fear; loving, but also resilient and determined.  When Harriet crosses the border into Pennsylvania, becoming a free woman for the first time in her life, the expression of quiet exhilaration that crosses Erivo’s face makes it a highlight of the movie.  She successfully transitions Harriet from a woman who is unsure how to carry herself as a free woman to someone who exudes confidence and determination to get a job done.  Erivo makes the role her own in a way that makes it hard to imagine anyone else ever playing Tubman.

In terms of the trajectory of the story, “Harriet” is a pretty by-the-numbers biopic.  But if it is predictable it is still incredibly entertaining.  The escape sequences are all thrilling, thanks to the combination of Lemmons’ direction, editing, and the music by Terence Blanchard, and Lemmons’ also picks a satisfying point to conclude this chapter of Harriet’s story, jumping ahead in time a bit to her work during the Civil War.  It isn’t a groundbreaking movie, and sometimes plays it safe, but it is powerful and informative in its own way, and does justice to the almost larger-than-life character who is its subject.

Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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