Popular recording artist Cynthia Erivo has already won a Tony, a Grammy and a Daytime Emmy for her performance and contributions to the 2016 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple”. She only needs an Oscar to reach the coveted EGOT status. Erivo’s lead performance in “Harriet” could put her on that track.
This historical biopic of fearless slave-turned-freedom fighter Harriet Tubman doesn’t break much new ground. But it will (hopefully) bring Tubman’s story to a mass audience, some who may barely recall the name from their school days.
Erivo pours conviction and honesty into her portrayal. The film begins in 1849. A desperate Tubman risks her life to escape from the Maryland plantation where she and her family are slaves. She travels, on her own, 100 miles north to find freedom in Philadelphia. But once there she’s not satisfied. Against the wishes of friends, Tubman goes back to the South to lead more slaves to freedom. And her missions continue, with each trip becoming more dangerous. Congress even passes a law allowing slave owners to track down their “property” in the free Northern states. And, of course, the Civil War is imminent.
Director Kasi Lemmons (“Talk to Me”, “Eve’s Bayou”) has made a single-minded and quite spiritual film. Tubman’s sole partner and guide on all her journeys on the Underground Railroad is God. The script isn’t shy about making The Almighty a key character.
Lemmons has made the go-to resource for school history classes for decades to come. Yes, it’s a bit narrow focussed when it comes to the time period. But, thanks to some surprises and layered characters, “Harriet” is one of the most engaging historical biopics since the quintessential genre entry of the modern era, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”.
The screenplay isn’t adapted from any specific source materials. So, while the core elements of “Harriet” are fact-based, some liberties were taken (which is true with practically every “based on real life” film).
Erivo and the supporting cast, led by Leslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monae, are able to convey the danger and desperation of the time period. At times this historical drama feels more like a suspense thriller. The costumes, set work and score add to the heightened tone.
“Harriet” respects the historical significance of its subject, while making her both relevant and contemporary.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Harriet” gets a B+.
Running Time: 125 min.