Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
A big-budget biopic about slave-turned-abolitionist and Civil War hero Harriet Tubman seems well overdue, but maybe that turned out to be best in the long run, so that she could be played by quickly-rising star Cynthia Erivo. Having already won a Tony and a Grammy, Erivo burst onto cinema screens last year with notable performances in Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. In Harriet, she brings determination, physicality, and her award-winning singing voice to the role of an American hero.
Araminta “Minty” Ross was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, where she suffered abuse as a child that included a fractured skull, leading to dizzy spells from which she would suffer for the rest of her life. After her owner rejects an attorney’s opinion that Minty should be freed to live with her free husband, Minty makes a run for it. After nearly drowning and starving to death, Minty makes it to Philadelphia where she changes her name to Harriet Tubman and begins living life as a free woman.
Harriet is not content with living free on her own, and against the advice of those around her she heads back south to free her family. She becomes a key conductor on the Underground Railroad and leads multiple missions to the south, almost single-handedly rescuing about seventy enslaved persons, including her own parents. (She eventually worked as a spy for the Union army during the Civil War and later was an advocate for women’s rights.)
The movie Harriet tells the story of Harriet the person in fairly straight-forward fashion, but with a compelling story like this there is really no need for the movie to reinvent the wheel. Where the movie strays a little bit from its by-the-numbers biopic formula is in its depictions of the visions of the future resulting from her dizzy spells. She interprets these visions as messages from God, showing her the way, and it is hard to argue with the results.
The movie is beautifully filmed by cinematographer John Toll, whose talent for photographing landscapes was already proven by his back-to-back Oscar wins for filming Legends of the Fall and Braveheart in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Harriet is filmed mostly in muted blues and browns, which works well for a story that takes place largely at night.
Director Kasi Lemmons presents the story of Harriet Tubman’s exploits as an adventure movie, wisely minus most of the wisecracks that might otherwise populate the genre. By letting Harriet be something of an action hero, the story remains exciting and engaging. Some possible suspense is left off the board during many of the escape scenes, some of which play as montages, but the adventure aspect and the compelling lead performance certainly make up for that.
The role seems tailor-made for Cynthia Erivo, who again gets to show off the physicality she demonstrated in Widows, as well as the incredible singing voice that was on display in Bad Times at the El Royale and her theater work. When she first broke out into song and had me wondering if this movie was going to go full-on musical, I thought it a strange choice, but was ready to go along with it. Harriet is not a musical, but it does do a good job of using the songs of the slaves as a code for them to communicate with each other right under the noses of their captors.
Erivo is certainly a presence and she holds this movie together from start to finish, appearing in nearly every scene. She is given excellent support by Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters, and Vondie Curtis-Hall, among others.
Harriet is an important biopic, but it does not get too bogged down in its importance. It is an adventure story with some weight behind it and an entertaining exploration of an incredible woman’s historic heroism.
Harriet opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.