Harriet review – Cynthia Erivo is sublime as legendary slave rebel

The remarkable life of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is told with heart and cinematic craft in Kasi Lemmons stirring biopic

History, heroism and leadership are the stuff of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing and heartfelt film about the life and times of Harriet Tubman, the Spartacus of the American south.

Cynthia Erivo gives a terrific star performance as Tubman, a slave who suffers from blackouts and religious visions, after being assaulted as a child, which give her a miraculous self-possession and confidence in her own destiny. Erivo embodies Harriet’s courage, resourcefulness, physical toughness, talent (and relish) for disguise and untutored genius for guerrilla warfare. The result falls somewhere between a slave-escape drama, an action thriller, a western and even an unexpected kind of superhero film. It’s a winning combination, although Lemmons does not immerse us in the agony and injustice of slavery as such; she puts together a well-crafted movie that is the showcase for an excellent performance from Erivo.

Born Araminta Ross on a US slave plantation in the early 19th century, Tubman did not merely escape to the abolitionist north – where she took the new freedom name Harriet – but led impossibly daring sorties back into enemy territory to rescue more enslaved field hands. She became a legendary conductor of the “underground railroad”, the network of covert refuges and safe passage routes that helped slaves reach freedom – and the existence of which became an intolerable, defiant provocation to what was to become the Confederacy. Lemmons’ movie, co-written with Gregory Allen Howard, shows Tubman becoming a mythical figure, with some plantation owners simply unable to believe that she is a black woman and preferring to think that she must be a northerner in blackface disguise, a wilful misapprehension which only helps Tubman in her work. The film argues that Tubman was not merely a client of the underground railroad but someone who effectively kept it alive.

As a young woman, Araminta is married to a local free man, a partnership entered into on the understanding, given by an ancestor of the present plantation owner, that she and her family would be given their freedom. That understanding is angrily rejected by the master, provoking a confrontation between Araminta and the master’s cruel and capricious son (Joe Alwyn), who is broodingly obsessed by her, as she was the slave who nursed him as a child. When she runs away, he makes it his personal business to take her back alive. But it is her father (a lovely, nuanced performance from Clarke Peters) who alerts her to the railroad and the path to freedom. Her final escape and her fate create her mythical lustre, but also an awful new twist of loneliness and betrayal in her home life.

This film may not reach the height of inspiration in every frame, but it could be that Lemmons is not interested in fetishising and aestheticising every dire circumstance, wishing instead to drive forward the story in an approachable, conventional way. She certainly offers a springboard for a tremendously charismatic and muscular performance from Erivo, who may well be in the frame for awards. Hollywood is still notably reticent about the slavery era, despite the success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and Lemmons’ achievement is to tell a story that does not accept slavery as a tragic and immutable fact, and to dramatise the people who took action against it.


Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ford v Ferrari review – motor-racing drama gets stuck in first gear
Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in a handsome-looking but dull account of the rivalry between the US and Italian car-makers

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

10, Sep, 2019 @10:01 AM

Article image
Hustlers review – J-Lo's stealing strippers saga is a vicarious thrill
The multi-hyphenate star delivers a standout turn in a snappy, fact-based caper about strippers scamming Wall Street bankers

Benjamin Lee in Toronto

08, Sep, 2019 @3:43 AM

Article image
Ordinary Love review – Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in potent weepie
Strong, sensitive performances assist a melancholic drama about a couple dealing with the fallout from a cancer diagnosis

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

13, Sep, 2019 @7:25 PM

Article image
The Two Popes review – Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce divine in papal faceoff
Hopkins’s Benedict XVI and Pryce’s Francis I make for a winning Vatican odd couple in this succession drama whose careful script ends not with a bang but a wimple

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

12, Sep, 2019 @8:50 PM

Article image
The Aeronauts review – charming balloon adventure way up where the air is clear
Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for a sweet tale of daredevil balloonists in Victorian England

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

10, Sep, 2019 @5:01 PM

Article image
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review – Cumberbatch’s cat artist drowns in quirk
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of eccentric Edwardian artist famed for his cute cats is brimful of star cameos but gets lost in mannered performances

Peter Bradshaw

03, Sep, 2021 @6:15 AM

Article image
How Cynthia Erivo took the US by storm – with a little help from Aretha and Oprah
The British star of Harriet, the new biopic of the great slave-turned-emancipator Harriet Tubman, Erivo first conquered Broadway – and now has Hollywood at her feet

Steve Rose

22, Nov, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Radioactive review – Rosamund Pike flounders in toxic Marie Curie biopic
Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi has made a stuffy and patronising drama that does a great disservice to its undeniably fascinating subject

Charles Bramesco in Toronto

07, Sep, 2019 @4:50 PM

Article image
Ammonite review – Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan find love among the fossils | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
Francis Lee’s sensational biopic of palaeontology pioneer Mary Anning reimagines her erotic encounter with a woman trapped in a stifling marriage

Peter Bradshaw

25, Mar, 2021 @11:58 AM

Article image
Empire of Light review – Olivia Colman shines in Sam Mendes’ darkening hymn to cinema
The ‘love letter to the movies’ genre is revived in this poignant, wonderfully acted drama about love, life and films

Peter Bradshaw

12, Sep, 2022 @3:37 PM