There has always been a fascinating story to be told about the legendary Underground Railroad, and the brave men and women who risked their lives to bring slaves to freedom in the North. Not too long ago, there was even a short-lived television series about them called “Underground.” However, this year, director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons has opted to give the most famous of these “conductors” the big screen treatment with her latest film “Harriet.” This, of course, refers to the great Harriet Tubman who made the dangerous journey between the North and South multiple times, saving hundreds of slaves from the mid-1800s through the Civil War. With just that brief description, it’s hardly surprising as to why Lemmons would want to share this remarkable story with audiences.
Starting in the 1840s, we meet Minty (Cynthia Erivo), a slave who lives on a plantation with her family. She is married to a freedman, John (Zackary Momoh), who tries to set her free from her master, Thomas Garrett (Tim Guinee), per the wishes of Garrett’s grandfather.
Unfortunately Thomas refuses, and even decides to sell Minty further south. Because of this, she decides to run away to freedom, eventually making it all the way to Philadelphia, where, with the help of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), settles into a new life, changing her name to Harriet in the process. However, a year later, she makes up her mind to try and rescue her husband, which ends up leading her to help others. Eventually she finds herself making the trip over and over, bringing as many slaves as she can North to freedom. As time goes on, the danger only increases, with dangerous new laws being passed that force them to flee even further. Even so, Harriet remains steadfast in the hope that one day she’ll be able to live with her family in peace.
“Harriet” works as a reverent biopic about the famed freedom fighter, telling Tubman’s story with beauty and grace, while never fully losing sight of its power and importance. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws, as it certainly does, but rather to say that you can tell the kind of respect that Lemmons has for the subject. She doesn’t overpraise her, but rather just tries to tell her incredible tale as straightforward as possible (or at least as close as she can get). No doubt a fair amount of this had to be fictionalized, but it always manages to stay true to the heart of the material.
As for where it falls short, it is fair to say that it is rather by-the-numbers and formulaic. Even if it wasn’t presenting the story of a real-life person, this is a tale where you’d be able to tell what’s going to happen from pretty early on. Also, in terms of pacing, it comes across as being a little stretched out at 125 minutes, padding it out with inspirational speeches and other scenes that don’t feel entirely necessary. It never gets particularly dull, but there are times when you wish as though it would get a move on with the narrative, instead of getting bogged down with superfluous sequences. A little more editing would’ve allowed the film to flow a lot better, especially when it comes to the second half, but even as it is, it hardly stops the film from accomplishing its goal.
On the plus side, the film is filled with strong performances, particularly from relative newcomer Cynthia Erivo as Tubman. She plays her with a fiery passion that shows in every scene, demanding our attention, and commanding the screen. She is supported with fine performances from Zackary Momoh, Leslie Odom Jr., Clarke Peters, and Janelle Monae. Erivo has already been getting a little bit of Oscar buzz for her memorable turn, and it would certainly be deserved should the nomination come her way.
“Harriet” ends up balancing out to a pretty good biopic that does justice to the incredible life of Harriet Tubman. It stumbles just a bit along the way with trying to keep good pacing, but thanks to the exceptional cast, the film remains a compelling adventure overall that will keep you engrossed for the vast majority of its runtime. It may not end up being the perfect telling of the astonishing story, but it works where it really counts, and for that, it’s worth the slightly-elongated two-hour investment. 3/4 stars.