At the onset of the Civil War, Confederate politicians anointed it as a Second American Revolution. They were right, but not in the way they thought. What started as a haughty struggle over state sovereignty evolved into a referendum on the very nature of humanity. This fratricidal conflict produced a different kind of revolutionary: Leaders like Harriet Tubman could dedicate themselves to the cause of crushing slavery because they had lived under its abject misery. Tubman’s story is so startling and inspirational, it doesn’t need any Hollywood polish to amplify its impact. But, for better or worse, polish is exactly what we get with Harriet.
The story will feel familiar to anyone with passable knowledge of antebellum America. Harriet Tubman was born as Araminta Ross, a slave on a Maryland plantation. Her experience was horrific, but not atypical: She suffered a debilitating head wound at the hands of her masters, and experienced fainting spells and hallucinations for the rest of her life. Separated from her husband, Tubman bolted for the abolitionist sanctuary of Pennsylvania. Once there, she connected with the Underground Railroad and found her life’s calling: Fearlessly guiding runaway slaves to freedom.
Harriet is at its best during these harrowing escapes. Desperate fugitives, exhausted and barefoot, sprint through the woods. Bloodhounds bay in the distance, and grow louder with each passing second. Capture will mean beatings, or even execution. These scenes boil with tension and fear, and we get a small taste of just how arduous the journey to freedom really was.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers spend much of the rest of Harriet fitting this American icon in to the confines of a tidy, traditional biopic. The script feels oddly mechanical as it hums from one landmark in Tubman’s life to the next: She struggles initially. Eventually, she overcomes and transcends. The music swells at just the right times. The cinematography alternates between honey-soaked sunshine and silvery moonlight. Odious slaveowners hiss and curse, never moving beyond one-dimensional villainy. There are many moments where Harriet feels slick and produced to the point of distraction.
Still, the film is greatly abetted by Cynthia Erivo’s earth-shaking lead performance. She brings bound-up rage to Tubman’s early scenes, and raw righteousness to the later crusader. This could have been an intimidating role, but Erivo has the requisite power and creative brilliance to pull it off. She is joined by a solid supporting cast: Vondie Curtis-Hall does great work as Samuel Green, a sympathetic minister who rails against runaway slaves, all while shepherding them to freedom. Leslie Odom Jr. is a strong presence as William Still, an abolitionist who tries to keep Tubman’s courage from teetering into recklessness.
For all its flaws, Harriet remains a film worth seeing. Tubman’s life occupies a crucial place in American history. Few people have come from so little and done so much. Tubman helped break chains and change hearts, but her struggle isn’t over. The battle continues, and it could still be lost. Harriet reminds us that Tubman’s freedom came at an unimaginable cost, and her enduring legacy should be that nobody ever has to pay it again.
125 min. PG-13.