Kasi Lemmons’ new film “Harriet”, which is inspired by the dramatic life of Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), is a biographical film which is formulaic to the core but is not entirely without good elements to be appreciated. Although it frequently stumbles due to its rather weak plot and characters, the movie is held together mostly well by the undeniably forceful presence of its lead actress, and it certainly gives us an interesting female narrative which deserves to be known more widely.
Set in Maryland, 1846, the first act of the movie shows us the latest predicament of Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), who was called Araminta “Minty” Ross during that time, and her black slave family. Although her father is a free man at present, Tubman and her siblings have been slaves in a local farm because their mother is a slave belonging to the owner of the farm, so she hopes to get freedom via the marriage to her lover, but, not so surprisingly, the owner does not give a damn about that at all, while also callously disregarding what was promised to Tubman’s mother in the past.
When things get worse after the owner suddenly dies and then is succeeded by his equally obnoxious son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), Tubman decides to escape from the farm even though she has to take a lot of risk from the beginning. While she gets some help from a local reverend, she soon finds herself pursued by Gideon and his men, and that is just the beginning of what she will have to endure before arriving in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she can be free and safe along with many other runaway slaves.
Thanks to her luck and courage besides some premonitions, Tubman eventually arrives in Philadelphia, and then she comes to meet a group of abolitionists including William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). While Still introduces Tubman to several prominent figures willing to help her, Buchanon provides her a place to stay, and Tubman cannot help but enthralled by her first taste of freedom.
After changing her name, Tubman embarks on her new life, but, as still aware of her family members stuck in their harsh and cruel status of slavery, she eventually decides to go back to her hometown for saving them all. After getting some lesson from Buchanon on how she has to make herself look less suspicious and more presentable in front of those white folks, she sneaks back into her hometown, but, alas, she only comes to learn that her relationship with her lover is not as strong as she thought, and she surely feels hurt a lot by that bitter fact.
In the meantime, she begins to dedicate herself to a cause in which she passionately believes from the start. After helping her several family members and some other slaves in the farm escape to Philadelphia, she continues to help more slaves as supported by a network of safe houses and secret routes called the Underground Railroads, and it does not take much time for her to gain considerable notoriety among those slave owners out there, who are certainly not amused at all by their increasing loss of human resource.
The situation becomes quite more perilous after the Fugitive Slave Act subsequently passes, and Tubman has no choice but to flee to Canada like many other runaway slaves in Philadelphia, but she still feels that urgent need of freeing her fellow slaves out there besides her remaining family members in the farm. In the end, she eventually returns to US, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that she will eventually come to confront Gideon again, who is quite willing to do anything for saving his farm and reputation through capturing his valiant opponent alive.
Around that narrative point, the screenplay by Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard becomes more contrived and heavy-handed than before, and its blatant finale does not work as well as intended, but the movie still engages us to some degree thanks to the strong lead performance from Cynthia Erivo, who recently received an Oscar nomination for that in addition to being nominated for Best Song Oscar as the co-composer of the theme song of the film. Although Tubman in the film sometimes feels too flat and simple, that weak aspect of the movie is considerably compensated by Erivo’s committed performance, and she also demonstrates well a bit of her singing talent during several key moments in the film (After all, she won a Tony for her performance in the Broadway musical version of “Color Purple” a few years ago, didn’t she?).
The other notable main cast members in the film are required to fill their thankless roles as much as they can. While Joe Alwyn is suitably mean and vicious as the main villain of the story, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe are under-utilized in their respective functional roles, and Clarke Peters, an ever-dependable character actor who drew my attention for the first time via his indelible performance in HBO TV series “The Wire”, manages to leave some impression as Tubman’s caring father.
Overall, “Harriet” is not satisfying enough for recommendation, but, at least, it provides a fair share of entertainment accompanied with some historical elements under the competent direction of Lemmons, who has steadily worked since her remarkable debut feature film “Eve’s Bayou” (1997). The movie is flawed indeed, and I would rather recommend “Eve’s Bayou” first, but I hope it will lead to more interest and attention to its historical human subject in the future.