American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman led an extraordinary life. Born into slavery she transcended, escaping to freedom before being a conductor on the Underground Railroad and rescuing 70 enslaved people, including her closest relatives. “Harriet” starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role, details her legendary life in a formulaic film that nonetheless inspires.
Set in Maryland, “Harriet” begins in 1849 with Minty (Erivo)—she didn’t take the name Harriet Tubman until later—leaving behind everything she knew, family, friends, her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) to escape the violence and oppression of a land owner who refuses to honour a deal to give her the freedom she deserves. “I’m going to be free or die,” she says as she embarks on an arduous journey across unfriend territory with a team of slave trackers trailing behind. With ingenuity and some divine guidance she makes it one hundred miles to Pennsylvania, freedom and the helpful hands of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), abolitionist and one of the architects of the network of secret roads and safe houses that became the Underground Railroad, the escape route many enslaved African-Americans used to access to the free states and Canada. He helps her get established but after a year Harriet feels that freedom without family is an empty experience. “If I’m free,” she says, “my family should be too. I made up my mind, I’m going back.”
That marked the first of many danger-filled journeys that saw Harriet, sometimes in disguise, sometimes carrying a gun, always equipped with courage and resourcefulness, lead dozens of people to freedom.
“Harriet” sometimes falls into overused thriller conventions but the career-making performance from Erivo, who displays a range that spans the absolute hands-in-the-air joy at crossing the border to autonomy to the steely determination when facing down her former oppressor, masks some of the uneven storytelling. Sudden shifts in tone, from harrowing to light, are jarring but the sheer force of Tubman’s personality (and Erivo’s performance) smooth out the rough spots.
Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons fills also the story with vivid details that evoke the time and place. The use of coded songs as a way to communicate is one particularly effective note that weaves tradition into the movie.
“Harriet” is an historical origin story that, for better and for worse, echoes the superhero origin tales we’ve seen so much of recently. It’s appropriate. Tubman was a real superhero. She is the stuff of legend, a woman who risked everything to fight against a fundamental, moral wrong. The movie that celebrates her life occasionally errs in its excess—it covers a great deal of ground—but the light it shines on Tubman and her accomplishments burns brightly.