Cynthia Erivo captures the spirit of Underground Railroad freedom fighter Harriet Tubman with enough ferocity and feeling to set this biopic soaring. The passionate acting of this British dynamo — a Tony winner for The Color Purple on Broadway — comes in handy when the film itself threatens to trip on its own hard-sold uplift. Harriet surely doesn’t need to push the importance of Tubman’s story to the Civil Rights movement, though it does, disappointingly and often. Luckily, Erivo is always there to remind us what counts in this dramatization of one woman’s heroic fight against the odds.
Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), who wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard, (Remember the Titans), opens the story in 1849, when Harriet — then a slave known as Minty— fought the idea that she was the personal property of Maryland plantation owner Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde). Her husband, John (Zackary Momoh), a free man, has found legal proof that Brodess’ great-granddaddy left a will freeing Minty, her siblings and their mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Brodess, of course, is having none of that. That’s when he and his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) decide to put the rebellious woman up for sale.
Minty has visions of the future that come when she communicates with God, The glory of Erivo’s voice as she sings spirituals in the field adds poignance to the scenes when the resistance leader says goodbye to her husband, mother, father (Clarke Peters) and family, and runs away to the free state of Pennsylvania.. A local minister (Vondie Curtis Hall), known her helping fugitive slaves, offers advice. But Minty is pretty much on her own.
The great cinematographer Jon Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall), aided by Terence Blanchard’s celestial score, brings a lustrous beauty to Harriet’s harrowing, 100-mile journey. It’s in Philadelphia that she meets Marie Buchanan (an outstanding Janelle Monae), who finds her a paying job as a maid and a gun to protect herself herself against a retaliatory white South. But our heroine finds her real vocation through abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton), who records her history and instills her with a desire to lead rescue missions for other runaway slaves.
Minty changes her name to Harriet Tubman, and is lit from within with a fire to lead others out of bondage. Her increasing fame puts her in a dangerous spotlight, especially when Harriet joins the Underground Railroad and becomes a conductor whose reach extends to Canada. Known as a female Moses, Harriet — who sometimes dressed as a man — becomes the face of a movement while resisting becoming a martyr to It.
It’s a big role, written with dimensions of sainthood that might defeat a lesser actor. But Erivo is up to every challenge, never losing Harriet’s compassionate humanity even as the film moves to the Civil War and pumps up the action at the expense of characterization. Tubman’s place in anti-slavery annals looms so large that her life virtually spills off the screen, as if no single movie could hold her. But there’s Erivo, hardly more than five feet tall like the dynamo she’s playing, giving us a woman in full on her march into history.