Her place on the $20 bill has been delayed, maybe indefinitely; but more than a century on, Harriet Tubman finally has her biopic. (As a festival director drily pointed out at the movie’s world premiere in Toronto, there have been over 20 films centered on Civil War commander George Armstrong Custer, but zero about America’s most famed abolitionist — until now).
If its aim to inspire and educate inevitably leaves the movie feeling a little classroom-bound, Harriet is still an impassioned, edifying portrait of a remarkable life, and a fitting showcase for the considerable talents of its star, Tony-winning British actress Cynthia Erivo.
It’s 1849 in Maryland and Araminta “Minty” Ross has never known a world outside of slavery, though her husband is a free man; when her young master, Gideon (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn, leaning hard on petty entitlement and pretty hair) refuses to let the pair live together, she impulsively breaks for freedom in the North.
Miraculously, she survives the treacherous 100-mile trek on her own, and lands in Philadelphia to find an entire network of sympathetic brothers- and sisters- in arms, including the Underground Railroad conductor William Still (Hamilton’s excellent Leslie Odom Jr.) and a glamorous boarding-house matron named Marie (Janelle Monáe).
Given the opportunity, Minty gladly sheds her slave name, taking on her mother’s first and husband’s last to become Harriet Tubman. Mere survival makes her restless, though; within months, she’s telling William she wants to return for her loved ones, whatever the risk. And she proves to have a singular gift for spiriting captives away under impossible circumstances, soon earning the deified nickname Moses.
Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity) has an unfortunate penchant for color-treated flashbacks that evoke low-budget TV recreations. And her choice to portray Tubman as having a sort of supernatural communion with God — who often comes quite literally to her aid — may be its own act of faith, but has the odd affect of diminishing her very real accomplishments; was her own ordinary, extraordinary bravery not enough? (You can’t blame Lemmonsm though, for finding almost any excuse to let Erivo sing; so did last year’s Bad Times at the El Royale.)
Even as the story paints Tubman with the broad, noble brush of sainthood — her only flaw, if she has one, is supreme stubbornness in the face of adversity — Erivo keeps her grounded in something fiercely and gratifyingly real; a woman clearly meant for the history books, but not yet entirely hardened into myth. B
(Harriet debuted at the Toronto International Festival and will come to theaters in wide-release Nov. 1)