Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film on Friday, November 1.
The legacy of Harriet Tubman has persisted for generations, but not counting an NBC miniseries starring Cicely Tyson that aired over 40 years ago, her story hasn’t received the movie treatment it deserves. That changes with “Harriet,” director Kasi Lemmons’ reverential look at the first stages of Tubman’s dramatic life, when she escaped a plantation and became a key organizer of the Underground Railroad.
“Harriet” doesn’t attempt to reinvent the biopic, relying instead on a poignant turn by rising screen talent Cynthia Erivo (“Widows”) as its soulful centerpiece, against the gorgeous backdrop of John Toll’s cinematography and Terence Blanchard’s euphoric score. As a sentimental tribute, it hardly transcends expectations — but Erivo’s performance injects a palpable urgency to the material that makes up for missed time.
“Harriet” is essentially an origin story: The script, credited to Lemmons and Gregory Allan Howard (“Remember the Titans”), follows erstwhile Araminta “Minty” Ross through her daring escape from a Maryland plantation in the early 1840s, after her possessive owner Edward (Joe Alwyn, wearing a permanent scowl) refuses to set her free. Making her way across 100 woodsy miles to Philadelphia, she falls in with Underground Railroad organizer William Still (a righteous Leslie Odom Jr.) before realizing how much she’s left behind. Harriet Tubman — the name she selects after William urges her to choose one — receives a warm welcome from a community of free people, including the maternal Marie (Janelle Monáe). But loneliness creeps into her conscience, and sets up a tragic revelation. After she decides she must retrieve her husband a year later, she finds that he’s married another woman.
But Tubman instead gathers a heap of relatives and other acquaintances, soldiering on as she forges a new sense of purpose. The movie’s straightforward first act builds to a galvanizing montage in which Tubman gains her reputation as “Moses,” the Underground Railroad operator responsible for helping hundreds slaves to escape to freedom. Guided by an energizing gospel soundtrack, Tubman’s quest settles into inspiration-by-the-numbers as her operation gains momentum and she delivers a series of rousing speeches about the mission at hand. The screenplay has a tendency to introduce new chapters in the Tubman story with blunt shorthand (“They’ve passed the Fugitive Slave Act! We’ve got to run!”), but Erivo brings such startling conviction to the performance that she’s always a remarkable figure of perseverance, and smooths over many of the rougher patches.
Despite the brutality of the era, “Harriet” takes a soft approach to its subject, downplaying the monstrous suffering of slavery aside from fleeting glimpses of scars and implied brutality. Unlike the grisly “Braveheart” showdowns of “The Birth of a Nation,” Lemmons focuses on Tubman’s ability to take action and inspire others to do the same. While it occasionally slides into the beats of an afterschool special, Tubman’s story predates that formula, and sits just fine within its confines.
The movie’s best sequences fixate on the opposition Tubman faces on various journeys to the South — relatives who aren’t sure they can make it through the shadowy nights, the resistance of her sister to abandon her children, the fascinating two-faced slave tracker (Henry Hunter Hall) tasked with tracking her down until he decides to join her side. With much of the scenery set in the empty forest landscape, “Harriet” often feels like a minimalist survival story, despite the sprawling backdrop and a busy cast of supporting characters.
Still, the generic tropes of this old-school historical drama grow repetitive as the movie creeps toward a climactic showdown between Tubman and her former overseer. More than 20 years after “Eve’s Bayou,” Lemmons has made her most conventional work, a feat of sturdy craftsmanship and performance with no fancy tricks.
At the same time, with Tubman gradually taking charge of her circumstances, the movie develops a rousing undercurrent that feels like cultural restitution. Erivo stole a few scenes in “Widows,” but here she singlehandedly elevates the staid quality of the drama, and saves it from sliding too far into a total soft lob. “Harriet” is both polished and often unadventurous in its storytelling, but Erivo gives it a soulful foundation.
It’s no great surprise that in the pantheon of traditional biopics, “Harriet” plays by the book. Unlike the cartoonish revenge of “Django Unchained,” or the melancholic poetry of “12 Years a Slave,” Lemmons’ straightforward narrative style foregrounds its purpose — to translate Tubman’s heroism into cinematic terms — and the emotional coda pulls it off. Set in the heat of the Civil War, with a confident Tubman leading her troops to battle, the epilogue centers on Erivo’s face as she radiates a level of defiance that transcends the more obvious beats leading up to it. Drawing her gun while her army follows suit, Tubman’s ferocity has an intimidating power, and movie hints at the more exciting potential that a sequel might bring.
“Harriet” stops short of depicting Tubman’s days as a spy for the Union Army, or the legacy that distinguished the end of her life, when she created a home for elderly African Americans. With end credits recapping these accomplishments, the movie calls out several missed opportunities at once. But as an appreciation of a black icon simultaneously taken for granted and underserved by popular culture, it establishes a template for more projects to come. Not for nothing does HBO’s “The Underground Railroad” miniseries land next year. Progress comes in small doses, and “Harriet” makes the case that you’ve got to start somewhere.
“Harriet” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features releases it theatrically on November 1, 2019.