Cynthia Erivo Leslie Odom, Jr. Janelle Monae Joe Alwyn Jennifer Nettles Clarke Peters
This story about the American hero, Harriet Tubman, who risked her life many times, first to save herself, then to save others, is a sobering account. Its strength—not a singular one—is in showing how despicable slavery is to the human body and soul and the strength and assertiveness of one woman in rebelliously going against a whole society in her efforts to free slaves.
The movie begins showing Harriet as a young woman married to a free man. It becomes apparent to her when the prospect of being sold arises, that there is a way out, and she’s ready to take that step (literally, a “Give me liberty or give me death” move). Leaving her reluctant husband behind, she runs, swims, gets surreptitious help along the way, and somehow manages to get 100 miles north of her home in Maryland. Although she can’t read, she’s very good at following directions and locating people she is told will help her. That is when she is directed to and reaches an organization in Philadelphia that runs the Underground Railroad.
Not content to make a life of her own at that point, Tubman continues to return home to help family members escape. Her first trip to bring her husband with her results in some disappointing news, but she is able to rescue other family members. She develops such a passion for freedom, she continues to help people get to the underground railroad, soon being named a “conductor” among the abolitionists.
Cynthia Erivo is exemplary as Tubman, and I don’t know if the real Tubman sang, but when Erivo belts out a song at meaningful times, her voice is beautiful. Strong support is lent by Leslie Odom, Jr. as a major abolitionist for the Underground Railroad and Janelle Monae in a cameo role, as an ally who helps Tubman present herself as a free woman. Also strong in a ferocious way is Joe Alwyn, as the slave owner’s son, who has loving memories of Tubman caring for him when he was gravely ill, but has self-entitlement so ingrained it gives him more impetus to catch her, with the aim of …you can guess.
I kept feeling like I should like this film better than I did. It was depressing, as tales of slavery always are and that’s understandable, but when evil or heroism are being portrayed, it lacks the “zip’ that would make it a moving experience. This may be attributed to Kasi Lemmons’ direction along with the editing by Wyatt Smith. Two other detractions related to implausibility are the depictions of Tubman’s visions, which I found hard to believe, and a scene in which Alwyn could have easily picked up his gun and stopped the fleeing Tubman. It’s too bad the story ended when it did, leaving out Tubman’s later career in spying for the Union Army during the Civil War and her continued assistance to others.
It is a good thing that Harriet Tubman’s story is—finally—being told. I hope that other films follow with more of an in-depth look into what an extraordinary person she was.
A story about the American heroine Harriet Tubman that, unfortunately, lacks dramatic weight.