Harriet

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in Focus Feature’s new film, “Harriet.”

It might come as a shock to learn we’ve never had a major feature film about the great American abolitionist and Civil War hero Harriet Tubman, who has become such a legend that a recent New York Times article quoted a Tubman biographer saying she encountered people “who were not sure if she was even a real person or if she was a figure from folklore, like Johnny Appleseed.”

Of course, and thank the Lord, the woman who was born a slave and changed her name to Harriet Tubman after gaining her freedom was a very real person who lived a surreal, amazing, inspirational life.

Now, thanks to director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons, and a powerful lead performance from the brilliant Cynthia Erivo, 21st century moviegoers have the opportunity to see this story come to life in a crackling slice of historical fiction concentrating primarily on Tubman’s stunning and awe-inspiring emergence from abused slave girl to brave, risk-taking, gun-toting, relentlessly determined conductor on the Underground Railroad.

When Erivo’s Tubman breaks into song or lashes out at anyone telling her what she can’t do or races through the unforgiving woods, gun in hand, she’s a real-life historical action hero — a badass who persevered against all odds and in the face of white-hot bigotry and hatred.

Save for some visually jazzy flashback and fever-dream sequences (Harriet has fainting spells and hallucinations, caused when her skull was cracked open by a monstrous slave owner when she was a girl), “Harriet” is on balance a formulaic biopic — one of those films focusing on a pivotal period in a historical figure’s life and sure to include an epilogue with written explainers detailing the rest of the person’s life, complete with old photographs.

When we meet Harriet it’s 1848, and she is a slave called “Minty” in Bucktown, Maryland. Minty’s husband Junyah (CJ McBath) is a free man living down the road, but when Minty’s owners sell her to a plantation owner in the Deep South, it appears Minty will be separated from not only her husband, but also her parents and siblings, forever.

She runs off, in the middle of the night, with the snarling, hateful, sadistic slave owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn, doing fine work in a difficult role) and his men doggedly pursuing her. (Gideon’s father owned the plantation where Minty was enslaved, and he and Minty are about the same age. He thinks they have some sort of bond because they “grew up together.” He’s an idiot. A rage-filled idiot.)

Miraculously, Minty avoids capture — at one point taking a deep dive into raging waters in a scene straight out of “The Fugitive” — and makes the hundred-mile journey on foot to Philadelphia, where she finds the abolitionists William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). They take her in, help her establish a new identity as Harriet Tubman, find her a job and facilitate her transformation into a free woman who never has to look back.

But that’s the thing. Harriet can’t help but look back, because her husband and all her kin are still back in Maryland.

She’s going back to get as many of them as possible and lead them to Philadelphia.

And when she completes that trip, she’s going to do it again. And again. And again.

Slave owners and bounty hunters think they’re hunting down a male known as “Moses.” Even some of Harriet’s own family are stunned to learn she’s the one who’s been leading dozens of slaves to freedom while somehow avoiding slave trackers.

Director Lemmons frames many of Harriet’s harrowing rescue missions in fast-paced, quick-cut style, as if we’re watching a modern-day action movie, complete with a rousing albeit heavy-handed score from Terence Blanchard. (One narrow escape in particular defies plausibility and relies almost completely on a group of slave trackers being incredibly thick-headed — but it’s still a kick to see the villains outsmarted again and again.)

The multi-talented Janelle Monae (“Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight”) continues her string of fine film performances as the refined and wealthy and beautiful Marie Buchanon, who is horrified by the abuse Harriet has suffered and comes from an entirely different world — but is willing to sacrifice her own freedom and safety in the name of helping her sisters and brothers. Leslie Odom Jr. turns in fine work as William Still, a good and great man who at first is almost amused by Harriet’s naivete and blind determination, but becomes her biggest supporter.

“Harriet” certainly doesn’t shy away from reminding us of the horrors of slavery, but it’s mostly about the quest for freedom, and a remarkable woman who found her own freedom wasn’t nearly enough.

She wouldn’t rest until she had guided dozens of others to the light. And not even then. 

A Chicago Sun-Times columnist for more than 20 years, Richard Roeper reviews movies as they hit the screen.

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