Cynthia Erivo’s spirited performance as the heroic Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery to become a freedom fighter for the Underground Railroad (and who should be on the $20 bill right now) is the highlight of the first biopic about the American abolitionist, suffragist, political activist and humanitarian.
Long overdue, “Harriet” from writer-director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) undertakes the rigorous task of telling this extraordinary story in just more than two hours. The result is a thorough and inspiring film with good performances that should become required viewing in classrooms around the country.
The film begins in 1849 Maryland where Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo), born into slavery on the Brodess Farm, married John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) a former slave and now a free man. Minty’s father Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) is also free, but her mother, Harriet ‘Rit’ Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway), and siblings remain the property of the Brodess family who refuses to set them free.
Jennifer Nettles plays matriarch Eliza Brodess who views her slaves as commodities that increase the value of the family’s farm where son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), a wicked man like his father, plays enforcer. The film portrays Gideon as someone who, in a sadistic way, had a crush on Minty and who refuses to let her live with her husband, John.
Minty wants to be free, and she sacrifices everything, leaving her husband and family behind, to make a run for it. With the help of the free Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), she’s instructed to follow the river and the North Star at night and after eluding capture by Gideon and his men, Minty makes the 100-mile trek through the wilderness to Philadelphia where she finds freedom.
Leslie Odom Jr. plays William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a historian who keeps a recorded history of all the former slaves that come through Philadelphia. When he asks Minty what name she would like to take as a free woman, she chooses “Harriet” after her mother and “Tubman” after her husband.
For all purposes Harriet could have lived comfortably in the diverse city where she’s given shelter by business owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), who runs a boarding house and who was born free, but Harriet feels like she’s been called by God to return to Dorchester County, Maryland, to free her enslaved family from their overseers.
Harriet soon becomes known in the area as “Moses” after leading dozens of slaves to freedom. Armed with a pistol and guided by premonitions (which resemble quick flashback sequences) the now Underground Railroad commander remains resilient while undertaking 13 missions total.
When Harriet was a teenager she incurred a traumatic head injury, which led to seizures and visions that she credited as messages from God. While some historians have suggested the famed abolitionist may have suffered from epilepsy or narcolepsy, Lemmons takes the divine intervention approach as Harriet’s blackouts are seen as supernatural phenomena or premonitions. Either way, for those who have faith, it’s easy to believe the Lord played a hand in her miraculous endeavor.
There are times when “Harriet” feels like a made for television movie but Lemmons, who started out as an actor appearing in some of my favorite films (“School Daze,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Candyman”) and then went on to direct the wonderful “Eve’s Bayou,” which was just inducted into the National Film Registry, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans”), gives us an entertaining and informative look at an important chapter in American history and one of our country’s greatest heroines.
Cynthia Erivo, who was great in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale,” is the film’s greatest asset and once again we get to her sing as she sends out signals in the form of a song to the enslaved people, that she has arrived to lead them out of bondage.
At times the film may seem like it’s slipping into melodrama, but when dealing with a heavy subject like slavery, the lines become blurred. The brutality and injustices committed in the past are a reality that shouldn’t be diluted for the screen. Lemmons does a proficient job of reminding us of the violence that took place without getting graphic.
With “Harriet” the filmmaker takes a different approach than Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” by extracting a shining light of hope from all the wickedness for an encouraging story about a remarkable woman and true American hero.