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‘Harriet’ (review)

Produced by Debra Martin Chase,
Daniela Taplin Lundberg,
Gregory Allen Howard

Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard,
and Kasi Lemmons

Story by Gregory Allen Howard
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Vondie Curtis-Hall,
Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway,
Clarke Peters, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh, Mitchell Hoog, Deborah Ayorinde

 

In Harriet, Tony winner Cynthia Erivo delivers a powerfully compelling performance as the former slave and Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman.Watching her convey the dignity and determination of the woman who defied the odds and risked her life over and over again to free other slaves is the main reason to see the film, which otherwise hits all the usual biopic beats.

We’ve had umpteen films about great men such as Abraham Lincoln, but this is, rather shockingly, the first movie about Tubman. (The late Ruby Dee played her in a 1963 TV episode and Cicely Tyson starred in a 1978 miniseries about the abolitionist icon.)

Tubman’s story is a fantastic one that that will surely have you hitting the history books (or at least Wikipedia) to verify that she really did accomplish all the things she does in the film: Not only escaping successfully to the North, but returning time and time again to free fellow slaves, despite higher and higher prices on her head.

Erivo, who broke out with Widows and was the standout among the star-studded cast of Bad Times at the El Royale, easily commands the screen as a woman who is unafraid in the face of such overwhelming odds.

It’s thrilling to see her stand up not only to her cruel owners, but to fellow abolitionists who’ve underestimated her or who keep urging her to play it safe. Erivo’s Harriet is not having any of that and we are completely there for her.

The film, directed and cowritten by Kasi Lemmons, focuses more on Harriet’s proud spirit and triumphs than on her mistreatment as a slave. The horrors of slavery are mostly referenced in the scars and stories of escaped slaves, making this a much lighter watch than 12 Years a Slave or Free State of Jones.

Harriet’s backstory includes a severe head injury suffered at the hands of a plantation overseer. Thanks to having her head “cracked open,” she often falls into spells where she hears the voice of God: She credits the Almighty with guiding her safely during her many rescues. These visions have a dreamy, otherworldly quality that help set the film apart from your average History Channel biopic.

And yes, happily, Erivo sings in the film, including a moving scene where she bids her family farewell. Fellow musical stars, Leslie Odom Jr. (as the Northern point man for the Underground Railroad) and Janelle Monáe (as a Northern woman who was born free), do not, however, sing a note.

I was unaware that Vondie Curtis Hall had such a fine voice, however. Here, he plays a Southern minister who preaches obedience in front of the slave owners, but is secretly the first stop on the railroad. (A moment’s research tells me he originated the role of Marty in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls.)

A biopic celebrating Harriet Tubman has long been overdue and in Cynthia Erivo, the historic heroine has found a more than worthy embodiment. The film itself doesn’t always rise to meet her, but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing her this remarkable portrayal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

 

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