Harriet Tubman is an incredible icon of America history. After fleeing the plantation on which she was enslaved, she went on to free approximately 70 other slaves and then became the first woman to lead a military assault during the Civil War. She may have been small in stature, but she was huge in character. That makes a movie about her both inevitable and very difficult indeed. Thankfully, Harriet rises to the occasion.
Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet, whom we meet under the name Minty on a plantation in Maryland. When her owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn) opts to sell her, she decides that she will escape and decide her own fate. She flees for more than a hundred miles to Philadelphia, where she enters the orbit of abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and becomes a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, helping other slaves to their freedom. She is promptly nicknamed “Moses, the slave stealer”, but no one believes she’s a woman.
This is Erivo’s movie and she’s an incendiary presence, capable of immense sensitivity as well as soaring defiance. After standout turns in both Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale last year, this is her coming-out party as a leading lady, and she absolutely nails it. Her early scenes are full of hopelessness, but she is shown to have faith in her own choices – which she believes are told to her by God in a series of strange visions or premonitions – and Erivo gradually inflames her performance to match that.
Erivo portrays Harriet as a woman who understands her power. She thinks nothing of holding up a finger to silence Odom Jr’s kind-hearted strategist and, by the time she dresses down a room of male abolitionists for their unwillingness to act, it’s the type of performance anyone would follow into battle. But she never loses the deep humanity that powers her crusade, which seeps through her whenever she uses her singing voice to communicate with other slaves, emanating warmth and sensitivity from every note.
The supporting performers, too, are impressive. Alwyn is slimy and unsettling as Gideon, while Janelle Monáe is a highlight as a woman Harriet befriends in Philadelphia. The movie, though, undoubtedly belongs to Erivo. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons hands her a series of brilliantly written, bombastic speeches and keeps her on the screen for almost every frame of the running time. If the biopic beats are more than a little formulaic, it’s down to Erivo that the movie almost always finds a way out of becoming conventionally bland.
As much as Harriet cleaves pretty tightly to the historical biopic format, and Terence Blanchard’s dewy score never lets the audience make emotional choices, the film has divergences in tone that enhance its impact. We see all hell break loose after the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act, culminating in an act of shocking violence that sees blood ooze evocatively like tears out of a facial wound. Lemmons doesn’t force the audience to wallow in the horrors of slavery, but she lets them know just how awful those horrors were, unafraid of delivering that darkness when it’s needed.
Harriet ultimately emerges as a stirring and powerful portrait of an inspiring woman. When the climactic title cards list her incredible achievements, it’s impossible not to well up at the sheer uniqueness of this woman. Not satisfied with escaping her own bondage, she turned her attention to improving the world for every single person affected by slavery. Through Lemmons’ sensitive, powerful filmmaking and Erivo’s outstanding performance, this is a story the world needs to hear.
Dir: Kasi Lemmons
Scr: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Zackary Momoh, Clarke Peters, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jennifer Nettles, Rachel Ross, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Prd: Debra Martin Chase, Gregory Allen Howard, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
DOP: John Toll
Music: Terence Blanchard
Run time: 125 mins
Harriet is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas from 22nd November 2019.