Between Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, Cynthia Erivo was arguably 2018’s breakthrough actress. Despite only being a supporting player in the aforementioned films, it was clear that we were watching a star being born. The idea of an actress of Erivo’s caliber portraying an American hero like Harriet Tubman certainly sounds like a match made in heaven. Erivo doesn’t disappoint, carrying a majority of this biopic with charisma, grit, and resilience. If we didn’t have Erivo doing the heavy lifting, though, we’d have a fairly straight-forward drama that feels more like a product of Hollywood than history.
The film begins shortly before Tubman is about to be sold from one slave owner to another. Tubman and her husband – a free man – try to resolve this legally by hiring a lawyer. When that doesn’t pan out, Tubman decides to make a break for it on her own and miraculously escapes to Pennsylvania. Upon arriving, she’s taken under the wing of a wealthy black woman named Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) and an abolitionist named William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.). Tubman isn’t content with being one of the few slaves who’ve achieved freedom. She wants to head back south and rescue the rest of her family, despite being told she won’t get lucky twice. Although it seems like a suicide mission, Tubman soon plants the seeds for the Underground Railroad.
As mentioned before, Harriet wouldn’t be the movie it is without Erivo. In a performance that could make her a first-time Oscar nominee, Erivo loses herself in a role that requires a balance of grief and optimism. Erivo strikes just the right note, portraying Tubman as a woman who’s literally been to hell and back, but refuses to give up hope that one day her people will be free. The supporting cast is mostly solid as well, although they all become wallflowers whenever Erivo is onscreen. Since Erivo is in almost every scene, there’s never a dull moment.
If anything, Harriet is a testament to what an incredible actress Erivo is because the screenplay, which Gregory Allen Howard co-wrote with director Kasi Lemmons, is fairly by-the-numbers. Whether you’re familiar with Tubman’s life going into this movie or not, the plot plays out exactly as one would expect from a historical biopic. On top of that, the film doesn’t always do the best job at blending the facts with fiction. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Tubman’s former slave owner, Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). Although slavery was a widespread injustice, Brodess carries a majority of the evil on his shoulder’s here. This simplifies the concept of slavery a bit too much, especially since Brodess wasn’t the prominent figure the movie makes him out to be.
Harriet builds to a showdown between Tubman and Brodess, which is where things get a little too over-the-top. It’s almost like a western version of the climax from Captain Marvel. Speaking of Marvel, Tubman occasionally seems to have a Spidey sense as she guides people to safety. Even if Harriet doesn’t always work on a historical level, though, it does capture the spirit of who Tubman was. It’s a film that respects Tubman’s legacy and brings out the bravery that defined her. Tubman proved that it only takes one person to make a difference. Likewise, Erivo proves that sometimes it only takes one actress to save a movie.