Harriet Tubman is not only one of the great American historic figures but a personal heroine of mine. It is surprising that only now, over a century after her death, has a biopic of this legendary figure been made. Harriet may not be the biopic worthy of her status, but it does serve as a strong primer to this most fascinating of American icons.
Minty is in a curious situation: married to freeman John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) but a slave herself, she enrages her master by merely asking him to keep to his late father's will to free her and her family. As punishment her master's son Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) will sell her down South. Terrified, Minty makes a daring escape, refusing to be captured and after jumping into a raging river, believed dead. Thanks to the Underground Railroad, finding freedom in Pennsylvania and complete with a new name: Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo).
While finding refuge and employment with a free woman of color, Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe), Harriet yearns to have her husband and family with her. Over the objections of abolitionist and mentor William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.), she insists on going back to Maryland, putting herself in danger. Heartbroken to find John already remarried to a free woman of color, her faith in God and His visions wavers until she sees her brothers and others are making their own escape when she's there. She manages to bring them to freedom, and the myth of "Moses" begins.
A manhunt for "Moses" begins, vexing both slaveholders and slave-catchers. An African-American slave-catcher, Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), comes closest, but on seeing what he takes as a miracle of this tiny woman managing to wade across a river, he converts Paul-like into helping her and other slaves escape.
Things come to a head on her last mission, with Gideon and master slave-catcher Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) coming close. They have laid a trap of sorts: getting notice that Gideon and his mother will sell her dead sister's children. Harriet goes one last time, to rescue them and her parents and having a final confrontation with Gideon.
In a bit of a post-script, we see Harriet leading black soldiers into battle, freeing her people with the Lord on her side.
Harriet is in many ways a paint-by-numbers biopic, almost a 'greatest hits' series of events with a few inspirational moments and speeches thrown in. There's poor Still, forever telling her X can't be done and Harriet forcefully asserting that not only can X be done but that The Lord will make it so. There's a moment of levity in a montage of her bringing large numbers of slaves to Philadelphia, where at one point a shocked Still literally falls out of his chair when Harriet comes storming in once again.
Harriet also feels longer than an already lengthy two hour running time. Her initial escape takes close to a half hour, then the coda of her inspiring black soldiers and leading them in battle almost feels tacked on.
However, given both the length of her life and the sheer majesty and power of her life and work, writer/director Kasi Lemmons (cowritten with Gregory Allen Howard), part of me is not harsh on this matter. Harriet Tubman did so many extraordinary things that trying to pack them into a feature film would be a daunting task. Harriet, therefore, did on the whole better than not.
Harriet is also blessed with a fantastic central performance by British actress Erivo. She makes Harriet Tubman into a full woman: beginning as fearful but slowly gaining her own strength and determination to see her people free, and accepting that she was an instrument of God to do His Will in bringing this monstrous enterprise down. Whether briefly doubting God's vision or making an impassioned speech to her fellow abolitionists about not giving up, Erivo holds her own and makes one cheer Harriet Tubman on. If there is any doubt over whether a British actress could play this American legend, Harriet should put them to rest, as Erivo was a standout in the role.
Perhaps Monáe could have done equally well, as she did excellent work as Marie, the elegant mentor and friend to Tubman, her final scene proving especially impactful and moving. Monáe has the talent and charisma for the part, and I'm so glad she has another chance to showcase her skills in film. However, and this may be an odd observation, Monáe may perhaps have been too glamorous for the role. Still, Monáe is fast becoming one of my favorite up-and-coming actresses.
I did find Alwyn a bit over-the-top as Gideon, but I figure the part required that. The rest of the cast in smaller roles such as Vondie Curtis-Hall as secret Underground Railroad conductor Reverend Green and Hall as the repentant Walter did well too.
The 'visions' Harriet had from God sometimes did not come across particularly well but that's a minor quibble, made up by some wonderful cinematography from John Toll and Terence Blanchard's score. Of particular note should be the ending song, Stand Up, performed by Erivo, which is quite stirring.
Harriet is not perfect. It does feel a bit clunky and long and perhaps does not delve as deeply in Tubman's fierce Christian faith as I think it should. However, as an introduction to both this legendary figure and one of the people I admire most, Harriet is a strong enough film about one of the greatest women to leave her mark on our nation's history.