Twelve years before the Civil War, Harriet Tubman made her bold flight from slavery, journeying 100 miles, alone and mostly on foot, from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Philadelphia. Rather than stay in relative safety, Tubman became an Underground Railroad conductor, risking her hard-won freedom by clandestinely returning to slave territory to help scores of people escape.
In “Harriet," the first major-studio feature film about this extraordinary life, British actor Cynthia Erivo brings a fierce focus to her portrayal of Tubman. Seeing the fire in Erivo’s Tubman, it’s easy to believe she has the will and means to rescue men, women and children. But the sometimes cavalier traits the film adds to Tubman’s personality undermine her courage and the seriousness of her mission.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) from a script by the director and Gregory Allen Howard, the “Remember the Titans” screenwriter, “Harriet” is an earnest biopic featuring a stirring musical score by New Orleans composer Terence Blanchard. Strong performances by a cast that also includes Clarke Peters, Vondie Curtis Hall and Janelle Monáe highlight this historical drama.
But “Harriet,” sincere though it is, is no definitive Tubman biopic. Condensing epic lives — or even portions of those lives — into a feature film certainly is a formidable task. Tony Kushner, for instance, spent six years writing Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Lincoln.” As for “Harriet,” Howard’s desire to make it an action-adventure movie is one reason why the film doesn’t succeed more. The conventional escape-and-chase sequences “Harriet” settles for don’t express the magnitude of Tubman’s place in history.
There’s a deeper flaw, too. The movie’s unremarkable depiction of Tubman’s early life keeps her spiritual journey at a distance. A story as big as hers should be more impactful, but “Harriet” can’t match, for example, the shattering power of “12 Years a Slave,” the 2013 biopic about Solomon Northup.
“Harriet” opens when Araminta “Minty” Ross, later to rename herself Harriet Tubman, is a young woman enslaved on the Brodess plantation. Motivation for her escape turns urgent after the Brodess family patriarch dies and his son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), sees the income gained from selling people in bondage down South as a remedy for his family’s financial distress.
“I gotta run,” Minty tells her father, Ben (Clarke Peters). Her father tells Minty that the Rev. Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) — the same black minister who dutifully preaches to enslaved people that they should honor and obey their masters — will help her escape. “You gotta be miles away from here before dawn,” Green says. “Follow that North Star. If there are no stars, follow the river.”
Minty follows the minister’s advice during a tense escape sequence. When she’s surrounded by search parties at both ends of a bridge, high above a river’s rushing white water, she warns her would-be captors: “I’m going to be free or die.”
Minty reaches Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a free black man who’s a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a black woman who was born free, takes the newly named Harriet Tubman into the Philadelphia boarding house she owns and operates.
“Harriet” subsequently becomes an episodic action-chase film. There’s irony in the fact that the slave tracker Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) is himself an African-American, but his scenes with the ruthless Gideon Brodess, the film’s principal villain, are standard pursuit material.
While Erivo delivers a solid performance as Tubman, “Harriet” doesn’t transcend a common biopic trap. Lacking a multidimensional portrait of its subject, the film doesn’t allow viewers to truly know her.
NOW PLAYING: At AMC Baton Rouge 16, AMC Mall of Louisiana 15, and Cinemark Perkins Rowe and XD
MPAA RATING: Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets.
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