• 09 Nov - 15 Nov, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

History, heroism and leadership are the stuff of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing and heartfelt film about the life and times of Harriet Tubman, the Spartacus of the American south.

Cynthia Erivo gives a terrific star performance as Tubman, a slave who suffers from blackouts and religious visions, after being assaulted as a child, which give her a miraculous self-possession and confidence in her own destiny. Erivo embodies Harriet’s courage, resourcefulness, physical toughness, talent (and relish) for disguise and untutored genius for guerrilla warfare. The result falls somewhere between a slave-escape drama, an action thriller, a western and even an unexpected kind of superhero film. It’s a winning combination, although Lemmons does not immerse us in the agony and injustice of slavery as such; she puts together a well-crafted movie that is the showcase for an excellent performance from Erivo.

Born Araminta Ross on a U.S. slave plantation in the early 19th century, Tubman did not merely escape to the abolitionist north – where she took the new freedom name Harriet – but led impossibly daring sorties back into enemy territory to rescue more enslaved field hands.

As a young woman, Araminta is married to a local free man, a partnership entered into the understanding, given by an ancestor of the present plantation owner, that she and her family would be given their freedom. That understanding is angrily rejected by the master, provoking a confrontation between Araminta and the master’s cruel and capricious son (Joe Alwyn), who is broodingly obsessed by her, as she was the slave who nursed him as a child. When she runs away, he makes it his personal business to take her back alive. But it is her father (a lovely, nuanced performance from Clarke Peters) who alerts her to the railroad and the path to freedom. Her final escape and her fate create her mythical lustre, but also an awful new twist of loneliness and betrayal in her home life.

Harriet is a good story, well-told and handsomely staged in traditional Hollywood biopic splendor with an attention to differential details that makes it more than just a Mad Libs “based on a true story” drama.