Harriet **1/2

Erivo is terrific as Harriet, but flawed storytelling hinders the rest of this biopic.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Her slave name was Minty, but you know her as Harriet Tubman, the woman who escorted hundreds of slaves to freedom in the 1850s and ‘60s. Her heroism is undeniable, and her legend is undoubtedly a tale worth sharing. It’s a shame, then, that director Kasi Lemmons (“Black Nativity”) didn’t fashion a better movie around Cynthia Erivo’s inspired performance as Harriet.

It’s not a bad movie, it’s just…flawed. Things go unsaid that should be explained, and some things are overexplained when they could’ve gone unsaid. The film, which is based on a play by Langston Hughes and was adapted for the screen by Lemmons, begins in 1849 Bucktown, Maryland. Minty (Erivo) is slave on the Brodess plantation. Her husband John (Zackary Momoh) and father (Clarke Peters) are free and live nearby, but the women in the family are slaves. With the help of a lawyer, Minty and John respectfully ask for their children to be born free, which doesn’t go over well with Master Brodess (Mike Marunde). Soon Minty is for sale, but before she can be sold she runs away, telling the Brodess’ oldest son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), she will either “be free or die.”

With no water, food, or anything other than the clothes on her back, she escapes on foot to Wilmington, Delaware, finds help, and then ventures to Philadelphia, where she meets African-American abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.). Still gets her involved in the Underground Railroad, which was a network of anti-slavery sympathizers who assisted slaves in escaping captivity. Minty, now known by her free name, Harriet Tubman, was one of the leading “conductors” of the railroad, meaning she was entrusted to safely move groups of slaves from the south to freedom in the north. It’s estimated that she made 13 trips and freed 70 slaves in the process, all at great risk to herself.

Certainly, these are laudable accomplishments. If only Lemmons allowed more insight into how the Underground Railroad worked, and what the freed slaves did once they reached Philadelphia. If part of the legend of Harriet Tubman is that she gave people freedom, an idea of what they did with that freedom is relevant and needed. Erivo does everything she can to make Harriet a sympathetic, brave and inspiring heroine, but she doesn’t have enough around her to elevate the film to greatness.   

Head-scratching questions start early in “Harriet,” and come often: Why is she laying in a field in the opening scene? How did she and John hire a lawyer? There’s 25 miles to go to Pennsylvania, and she chooses to walk? If she believes God is guiding her to safety, and receives premonitions that show her things before they happen, why is she ever in danger? And so on. These questions don’t necessarily ruin the movie, but lapses of logic are a hindrance to narrative credibility.

Given Harriet Tubman’s importance in American history, it’s a bit surprising that it took this long for a mainstream movie to be made about her life. Unfortunately, only Erivo’s performance stands out in a film that otherwise doesn’t live up to Tubman’s extraordinary accomplishments.

Did you know?
Tubman was also active in the Civil War and Women’s Suffrage movement before she died in 1913.

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