Legendary American heroine that she is, there are certain things for which Harriet Tubman is overdue. One is her spot on U.S. currency: Google “Tubman” and “$20” and “Trump.” Another is a major feature film based on her life: Google “Tubman” and “Hollywood” and “why so long?”
Well, that $20 bill has been delayed, but finally there’s a Hollywood film, “Harriet,” that seeks to honor Tubman and her extraordinary place in the anti-slavery movement.
Hollywood doesn’t make tons of movies about female heroes or black heroes, let alone black female heroes. One can only imagine the pressure the creative team must have felt to get it just right. And that’s exactly what comes across in the final product. “Harriet” is built on such good intentions and such a fierce desire to get it right that it seems risk-averse creatively, a fairly formulaic biopic created more for a history classroom than the multiplex.
This is not to say “Harriet” is an unworthy enterprise, but it could have pierced more deeply than it does. In the plus column, it marks the welcome return to the director’s chair of Kasi Lemmons, who first drew attention with “Eve’s Bayou” in 1997. And it stars a truly singular talent in Cynthia Erivo, in one of her first major screen roles.
Erivo is a Tony-winning stage actress of such unique power and intensity that it’s not overstating it to say she can thrill with a single note — she’s simply one of the most talented dramatic singers alive today. If you want a hint of that, make sure to catch the closing credits; Erivo sings “Stand Up,” a song she co-wrote.
And though she doesn’t get to sing much in the movie — there are snippets of spirituals here and there, and if you were Lemmons, you’d find every reason to have Erivo sing, too — the actress does turn in one of the deeper portrayals. Many other characters seem one-dimensional, a failing of the screenplay more than the cast, which is filled with estimable names like Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr. The main “villain” role of Gideon (Joe Alwyn), the owner’s son at the plantation where Tubman grew up enslaved, feels particularly underwritten.
We begin at that plantation, in Maryland, with Araminta Ross — aka “Minty”— lying on her back in a field. Since she was a little girl, when her head was split open in a blow from an abusive master, Minty, now in her 20s, has suffered seizures and blackouts, during which she has visions.
On this day Minty is awoken by her husband, a free man, who surprises her with documentation he’s obtained of a promise from her owner’s ancestor to grant the slave family its freedom, now overdue. But the owner — Gideon’s father — shreds the letter in a nasty rage.
Minty now knows she has no choice but to flee. She makes it off the plantation, only to be caught by Gideon and his posse, trapped on a bridge over a raging river. She stuns Gideon by jumping off, to a certain death.
But she survives — and makes it to Delaware, where a friend helps her to the border of free Pennsylvania. She walks the last bit by herself. This incredible achievement — imagine the obstacles she faces, covering 100 miles (160.93 kilometers) on foot — is largely hinted at, not shown.
In Philadelphia, Minty is welcomed by abolitionist William Still (Odom, playing a real-life character) and given a room in a house owned by the elegant Marie Buchanon (Monae, playing a fictional one.) Offered a new name for her new life, she becomes Harriet Tubman.
Despite her freedom, Tubman soon makes a hugely risky decision: to go back to Maryland to bring back her beloved husband. She makes it there, only to find out — in a beautifully acted scene — that her husband, believing her dead, has another wife.
But Tubman now finds her calling: bringing slaves north to freedom. At one point she pulls a gun on her own brother to assert her authority as she guides her brood northward, relying on communion with God to lead the way.
This is, of course, how Tubman became a “conductor” of the famed Underground Railroad, freeing some 70 slaves (the film rejects an inflated figure of 300 in some biographies; Tubman also freed hundreds more slaves with the Union Army in the Civil War.)
Again, we don’t see much detail of these stunning feats, which earned Tubman the moniker “Moses” — furious slave owners assumed they were hunting a man. At one point we get an action-flick style montage, which feels odd, as does the often overly obvious, swelling musical score.
It’s hard to go too far wrong, though, with a story as compelling as Tubman’s and an actress as vivid as Erivo. Better to celebrate the arrival of what hopefully will be a slew of Tubman films, and look forward to those Tubman bills in our wallets.
And remember: don’t miss those closing credits.
“Harriet,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.” Running time: 125 minutes. Three stars out of four.