‘Harriet’ Review: Cynthia Erivo Moves Mountains in a Standard Biopic [TIFF 2019]

Awards and festival-season biopics generally follow a pretty strict pattern, and Kasi LemmonsHarriet doesn’t digress too far from that path. But the filmmaker (who debuted her feature film Eve’s Bayou at TIFF twenty-two years ago) went ahead and assured herself a success by casting Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist, Underground Railroad conductor, and Civil War hero Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross).

Cynthia Erivo sang her way onto our collective radar with an astonishing performance in last year’s Bad Times at El Royale (followed by a smaller but hardly less striking role in Steve McQueen’s Widows), and if she wasn’t already, she’s now guaranteed a forever place in our cultural consciousness with Harriet. This is an incredible turn, and while the film it’s in doesn’t quite match it, Erivo alone would be enough to make Harriet mandatory viewing.

The script is, unfortunately, Harriet’s weak spot, a somewhat pedestrian overview of Tubman’s astounding journey from slave in 1849 Maryland to armed expedition leader in 1863. Harriet tries to shove in a whole lot of fascinating, world-changing history in just two hours, reduced to narrative shortcuts like training montages, composite characters, transparent Joan of Arc comparisons and rousing speeches that sum up Tubman’s entire philosophy in a couple of trailer-friendly soundbites.

But it’s worth noting that Harriet is an outstanding-looking film, angelically lit from its rose-gold dawns to its platinum dusks, with John Toll’s camera making the most of lush, unspoiled landscapes and the very excellent face of our lead actress.

Not to belabor the point, but Erivo manages to make every speech and montage land with her marvelously expressive countenance, powerful posture and absolutely heart-clenching voice. She’s joined by a ton of talent: Leslie Odom Jr. as fellow abolitionist William Still, Clarke Peters as Harriet’s father, Henry Hunter Hall as a Tubman convert named Walter, and especially Janelle Monáe, who continues to steal scenes and draw focus in her small but memorable roles of the past few years. Let’s get this woman a leading part, already.

Harriet goes more than a little heavy on the aforementioned Joan of Arc stuff, with a significant portion of screentime devoted to Tubman’s spiritual visions and conversations with God. And while Tubman is known to have experienced intense dreams and vivid apparitions, likely the result of a head injury she suffered from a slave owner as a child (a theory the film gives a tongue-in-cheek nod to), the net result of this subplot is that Harriet Tubman is presented as a supernatural presence chosen by God to save her people, instead of the far more interesting and impressive person she actually was: just a very brave, very selfless and very driven human being who risked her life and freedom dozens of times to rescue every single slave she could. Why can’t that be cool enough for Hollywood?

But while Harriet does fall prey to some of the more obvious tendencies of its genre-mates, the film goes easy on the melodrama and instead delivers laughs, capers and immensely entertaining action. Yeah, it would be great if Harriet were a little less traditional and a little more tradition-bucking like the hero of its title, but Lemmons and Erivo still do thrilling and beautiful justice to this remarkable woman who saved hundreds of lives, shaped a revelation and, without question, belongs staring fiercely out of our $20 bill.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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