“Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons has said she pitched the movie as the “superhero origin story of Harriet Tubman.” The result is a biography that stirringly conveys the Underground Railroad leader’s heroism, but which also Hollywood-izes her story in occasionally distracting ways.
Cynthia Erivo (perhaps best known for her starring role in “The Color Purple” on Broadway) plays Tubman, a slave on a Maryland plantation. Introduced in 1849, Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she’s known, has already seen her sisters sold away.
Facing the same fate, she makes a desperate bid for freedom, fleeing from slaveholder Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) and enduring a perilous 100-mile journey that eventually brings her to Philadelphia.
Once there, she receives assistance from free blacks (Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae), before deciding that she must brave returning home in order to lead other members of her family to freedom. Ignoring warnings about the danger, she heads back, guided by her religious faith and a belief that God is directing her.
“Don’t you tell me what I can’t do,” Harriet says defiantly, well aware of the ordeal that awaits her if she’s captured on one of those trips, which prompt real-time mythologizing of “Moses,” the mysterious figure leading slaves to the promised land, who some plantation owners assumed to be a white man wearing blackface.
Although there has been some second-guessing about casting Erivo, who is British, to portray this American icon, her performance is the heart and soul of the movie. (Besides, if Daniel Day-Lewis and Kenneth Branagh can play Lincoln and FDR, respectively, there’s clearly some precedent for that.)
Erivo conveys Harriet’s grit, but also her vulnerability, and the personal sacrifices and moments of anguish that she experienced as a consequence of her resolve, as she puts it, to “Be free or die.” As a bonus, the multi-talented star sings the movie’s closing-credit song, “Stand Up.”
It’s the script, by Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (“Ali”), which — in the desire to emphasize the thrilling aspects of the story — appears at times to embellish Tubman’s tale, specifically with stirring monologues accompanied by swelling music.
That approach works better during a rallying speech to fellow abolitionists — after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act moved the sanctuary line for escaped slaves all the way to Canada — than, say, in her interactions with Brodess, which feel too conspicuously massaged to punctuate scenes. At those moments, in seeking uplift amid the darkness, the movie risks veering into cliches.
Cicely Tyson played Tubman in the 1978 TV miniseries “A Woman Called Moses,” but this marks the first major movie devoted to her. In that respect, “Harriet” is an overdue, mostly worthwhile tribute — one whose main flaw involves dressing up her story more than its real-life heroism requires.
“Harriet” premieres Nov. 1 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.