At times this sincere look at an important historical figure (who hasn’t been emblazoned on $20 bills yet) can be prosaic and platitudinous but knows how to hit the emotional beats while checking all the boxes, though hardly with an austere, unflinching, and penetrating realism of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Harriet stars Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale,) evincing an endearing flinty spirit as a slave known as Minty at the outset circa 1849 in Maryland. She won’t hand around too long after an attorney letter regarding her family isn’t copacetic with her owners. Not that she likes having to leave husband John Tubman behind.
Leslie Odom Jr’s William Still is the Philadelphia-based abolitionist having founded a center for escaped slaves into the free state. William appears to have been waiting for this kind of person who renames herself Harriet – but wished she would use more caution in her plans to head back to her own territory to get slaves for him. Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures) is a welcome sight as a well-to-do proprietor that helps escapees and becomes a confidante to Harriet.
The pace quickens from admirable, if strained director Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity) in the multiple transporting of sacred folks with its share of woodsy nocturnal perils, not to mention trackers like Walter (a scene-stealing Henry Hunter Hall). Those of Walter’s ilk have been enlisted by white men to snare the ‘slave stealer’ dubbed Moses. A diving inspiration filled with visions may have had an effect on said pursuer likely inured from an inadvertent head injury in Harriet’s youth.
Many interested in this portrayal will feel the pull of the heroine during an interlude being instrumental in raid to free slaves during the Civil War for the Union Army. It’s more convincing than the excessive climatic confrontation with her owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn of The Favorite in abhorrent mode). So this first cinematic memoir of the tenacious Tubman is a compromised, through not surprising given the demands on the project which likens its protagonist to a superhero. It would have been nice to have gotten more of the nuance of how a special effort came to be.
Yet, the British star in Erivo (who has excelled on the London stage and on Broadway in The Color Purple) has such a truthfulness in Harriet that goes a long way to mitigate what often is an unspectacular rendering of the significant Tubman years. In what still is admirably and not glossed over (even if at times with an enraptured production perhaps resembling small-screen fare) an elemental educational essence into a lasting mythological power is on the mainstream mark.