It was in 1849 that Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland, fleeing 100 miles to the relatively safe city of Philadelphia. She was just 27 years-old. But instead of staying put Tubman returned thirteen times, rescuing approximately 70 slaves including members of her own family. And that’s just a part of her inspiring life story. So how is it she’s just now getting the big screen treatment?
“Harriet” is the long overdue biopic of the slave turned abolitionist who became the most well known conductor on the Underground Railroad. The film comes from director Kasi Lemmons who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard. The powerful and resonant historical truths behind Tubman’s life energizes the film both dramatically and emotionally even though the movie often travels down more conventional paths.
The film opens in Maryland where young newly married Harriet (then going by her real name Araminta “Minty” Ross) is living as a slave with her parents and siblings. The movie chronicles her eventual break for freedom and 100-mile trek to Philadelphia where she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.). Soon she makes the first of several trips back to lead other slaves, including her family, to freedom.
Some have called “Harriet” a star-making vehicle for Cynthia Erivo and they’re not wrong. The British actress, singer, songwriter broke out in 2019 in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she was the best thing in “Widows”. Here she is given her meatiest role yet and once again proves herself to be among the most exciting new actresses on the big screen. In “Harriet” her role demands a certainly physicality which she nails. But it’s her emotional range that stands out even when the material spins its wheels.
Sadly too much of “Harriet” seems rooted out of Hollywood and built upon a more modern day sensibility. Often the historical account is tossed aside for a more contemporary crowd moment. Take a scene where Harriet takes a bite out of a room full of fellow abolitionists. Included in the group is none other than Frederick Douglass who is given the third degree for being out of touch with the plight of slaves down south. The entire scene feels false.
Even Harriet’s visions, which are historically accurate, are not presented in a convincing way. These scenes make her more like an empowered biblical prophet than the Harriet Tubman from history books. Throw in a dab of fairly generic chase scenes and a bland, one-dimensional slave owner antagonist (Joe Alwyn) and you have your conventional Hollywood stew.
Yet shining through the haze of studio formula is Erivo who puts the entire movie on her back. Her performance captures the spirit of Harriet Tubman which has shamefully been missing from the big screen. This may not be the definitive Tubman biopic she deserves but the movie honors this important historical figure and hopefully will inspire people to look deeper into her true life story and incredible accomplishments.
VERDICT – 3 STARS