Cynthia Erivo Gives a Towering Performance in Harriet Tubman Biopic

The fact that no well-known film has yet been made about American icon Harriet Tubman has long been one of Hollywood’s biggest blindspots. One of the most heroic figures in the history of our nation, Tubman led over 70 slaves to freedom as a key figure of the abolitionist movement. She was the first woman to lead an armed military assault during the Civil War and eventually became a spy for the Union army. Acclaimed actor turned director, Kasi Lemmons brings the beginning of Tubman’s story to life in her new film “Harriet.” 

Starring Cynthia Erivo in an incredible performance that almost transcends the faults of an uneven film, “Harriet” unfolds as a mesh of classroom textbook and divine origin story, with heavy shades of the latter weighing the sensory storytelling accomplishments down. Lemmon’s filmmaking prowess is formally masterful — certain shots of the movie are gorgeous to behold (cinematographer John Toll was a perfect choice to lens the movie) — but a sloggy screenplay distracts from her inspired artistic choices. The structure is very by the book and there is a lack of interesting, in-depth characters (outside Tubman, of course), making the film a chore to sit through for the rough patches.

Beginning on a Maryland plantation at the end of the 1940s, Lemmon’s introduces us to Tubman when she was still known as Armanita Ross, and the nickname “Minty.” When the patriarch of her owner’s family dies, his next of kin, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), refuses to honor a supposed agreement that the family would go free after reaching a certain age. Minty flees to Union territory after she realizes she’s about to be sold away from her husband-to-be by Brodess, whose family’s financial situation is in dire straits.

Heeding her Reverend’s advice to “follow the North Star,” Minty escapes to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) a member of the Underground Railroad who allows Mindy to pick her free name. Reborn as Harriet Tubman, the former slave is introduced to a woman named Marie (Janelle Monáe) who was born free. Under her tutelage, Harriet learns to read, how to carry herself, and remain calm and composed under pressure. “Anyone with eyes can see what you are,” she is told upon her arrival in Pennsylvania, “Walk like you’ve got a right to, then no one will pay you no mind.”

Against the advice of the Railroad, Harriet travels back to Maryland to liberate members of her family. She starts dressing as a man, adopting the name Moses, a name mythologized by both slaves and slave owners almost instantly. When the Fugitive Act of 1950 is passed, the abolitionist movement fears their days of ferrying slaves is over, but Tubman doesn’t back down, insisting that she’ll bring shackled citizens all the way to Canada, if that’s what it takes to touch freedom. 

The most effective aspects of the film, outside Erivo’s performance, are the movie’s music, the period look and marvelous cinematography. After Harriet liberates herself, the film radiates with tangible textures of mother nature as the music climbs towards catharsis. You can almost reach through the screen and touch the sunlight striking the autumn leaves as if it were a painting. Cold hues color dominate the palette during tense escape sequences, Terence Blanchard’s score enhancing the emotional stakes without feeling as if it’s over-manipulating. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the final stretch of the film. 

At the beginning of the movie, Lemmons’ uses flashbacks – shot it a similar blotchy style as her fantastic breakthrough film “Eve’s Bayou” – to convey the heinous actions that occurred on a regular basis in the South before the emancipation. As the film gets further into its narrative, these inserts morph into precognitive visions, Harriet letting her faith in prayer guide her and others to freedom. It’s an interesting idea that accidentally undercuts the films own message of self-liberation at a couple of key junctures. “Harriet’s” view is that no river is too deep to cross with the right amount of faith; an admirable message that comes off as flippant in such a solemn historic setting. Some audiences may take serious issue with the superstitious, arguably supernatural, side of the film. Others could quite possibly find it uplifting and inspirational; it’s going to be dependent on one’s personal religious beliefs, God’s guidance becomes a growing aspect of Lemmons’ biopic. 

The movie also has a truly terrible antagonist, in every sense of the word. Gideon is easy to loathe, but he’s an epicly uninspired embodiment of evil, Joe Alwyn’s performance striving at all times to remind audiences how pathetic and petty the Southern slave owner is. His aggressive affection for “Minty” is almost draining by the end of the film. 

Thankfully, the high points of the film nearly make up for “Harriet’s” dramatic missteps. Lemmons has an apt eye for artistic detail and is clearly bursting with cinematic ideas, but she seems boxed in, creatively, by movie biography cliches. Ideally, one wishes “Harriet” would have taken its story a tad further, showing Tubman fighting during the war, leading liberation assaults, or going undercover, perhaps, not simply settling to be like every other biopic. Instead Lemmons’ almost treats the fairly standard material that tells the tale of Tubman’s formative years like a superhero origin story, an approach that’s uplifting, but not entirely successful.

Harriet” opens Nov. 1. In theaters nationwide.