Araminta Ross, known as Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) until very recently, is one of the great under-appreciated figures of American history. As an abolitionist, she freed about 70 slaves in 13 missions. In the Civil War, she worked as a spy for the Union.
Tubman leaps from the screen under the direction of Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”). Though conventionally told in biopic fashion, the film is brisk and lively with accents of a suspense story. The story of Tubman’s life should well be front and center and this film is a welcome addition to cinema.
Minty (Cynthia Erivo) is under enslavement by Edward Brodess (Michael Marunde). In a will by the slave owner’s great grandfather it states that Minty and her child would be free when her mom turns 45. A snarling Edward refuses to honor the will.
A short time later, Minty receives a vision and knows she must escape. She goes to see her father (Clarke Peters) who says she should go straight to Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and ask him to pray for safe passage.
Minty moves under the cloak of Christianity unseen by evil eyes. Surviving a fall into the rapids and hunted by the Luciferic Gideon (Joe Alwyn), she reaches Philadelphia and the haven of a boarding house run by the glamourous Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Minty starts to dress less modestly. Going to bed, Minty receives another vision. She must save her husband John (Zackary Momoh) from certain torture or death. She dresses as a free woman in burgundy and black and arms herself with a pistol.
But things are not as they seem.
The most vivid element is Cynthia Erivo, who in a dashing greatcoat as Harriet Tubman becomes a superhero right before our eyes. With the power of divination, she knows precisely what to do always, till the end of days. In other hands this might be cloying or sentimental, but Lemmons illustrates it well without kitsch, giving it genuine spirituality and import.
Gideon is smarmy, the vile man we well love to hate, but even this is handled without too much excess. One can well imagine this grounded in authenticity, without artifice.
Henry Hunter Hall gives an engaging standout performance as Walter, a young mercenary who is quick on his feet. Within his body there is a self-centered locomotion that moves with these atrocious times and you will not forget his performance.
One wishes for something substantial from Tory Kittles as the iconic Fredrick Douglass (who worked with Tubman intensively) other than a figurehead with no dialogue. But on the whole, this omission feels a trifle.
In no uncertain terms, “Harriet” portrays Tubman as she was and forever will remain, a hero, a righteous Avenger. Within Lemmons’ gaze, Tubman is possessed of spiritualist power well before Edgar Cayce. Araminta was summoned by her times. She was the only woman in charge of a military operation, instrumental in the pivotal Cumbahee River Raid, and America is a better country because of her steadfast resolve.
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