‘Harriet’ Review: Becoming Moses

Cynthia Erivo and Kasi Lemmons bring Harriet Tubman to life onscreen.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons.Credit...Glen Wilson/Focus Features, via Associated Press
A.O. Scott
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Biography, Drama, History
2h 5m
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When I first started out as a film critic, I used to get regular mail — actual written letters, in envelopes — from a reader who wanted to know why Hollywood hadn’t made an action movie about Harriet Tubman. I didn’t have a good answer (other than the obvious answer), but the question was a good one. Tubman’s remarkable biography has all the right elements: danger, surprise and the kind of against-all-odds heroism that brings people to the movies.

“Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Black Nativity”) and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s precise and passionate performance in the title role, might not be exactly what my correspondent had in mind, but it is a rousing and powerful drama, respectful of both the historical record and the cravings of modern audiences. The story of Tubman’s escape from enslavement on a Maryland farm and her subsequent leadership in the underground railroad is conveyed in bold, emphatic strokes. Villainy and virtue are clearly marked, and the evil that Tubman resisted is illuminated alongside her bravery.

Before she chose Harriet as her “freedom name,” and before she became the mysterious liberator known to slaves and their masters as Moses, Tubman is called Minty Ross (short for Araminta). Like her mother and siblings, she is the property of the Brodess family, though both her father, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) and her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), are free.

One of Lemmons’s achievements is to show that their freedom, rather than mitigating the horrors of chattel slavery, emphasizes its cruelty and also its moral dishonesty. It is more than Minty can bear, and so, with the encouragement of her father and the help of a free black minister (Vondie Curtis-Hall), she runs.

Reaching Philadelphia, she is welcomed by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and taken in by Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), antislavery activists whose ease and urbanity astonish her. “Harriet” pays tribute to their efforts while noting the tactical and temperamental differences between its heroine and her allies, many of whom had been born and raised in freedom. She is both part of a movement and something of a maverick within it, taking her instructions directly from God and setting out on missions that her colleagues often regard as irresponsibly risky.

These missions take her back into the land of her former owners, whose decadence and corruption are represented by Eliza, the Brodess matriarch (Jennifer Nettles), and her nasty son Gideon (Joe Alwyn). Harriet is determined to liberate the members of her family, which means evading both white slave-catchers and an especially fearsome black bounty hunter named Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey).

The chases are suspenseful, and the violence is fairly restrained. The pain of enslavement is written on Erivo’s face and on the scarred bodies of the people Harriet brings out of bondage, but the full brutality of the masters and their minions is more implied than shown.

“Harriet” isn’t an immersion in horror like Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” and it doesn’t have the imaginative sweep and complexity of literary depictions of slavery like Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World,” Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad” or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” It is more like one of those biographies of historical figures intended for young readers: accessible, emotionally direct and artfully simplified.

The exception — the aspect of the film that suggests some of the strangeness and intricacies of a reality that is both unimaginably distant and not even past — is Erivo herself. Perhaps as a result of an injury inflicted by her enslavers when she was a child, Harriett is subject to religious visions, “fits” that impart the gift of prophecy. (Joan of Arc’s name is invoked, in addition to Moses’s.) This is a kind of super power, but Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger and love. There is also a formidable intelligence at work, both tactical and political, and an elusive, almost mysterious quality as well. This is someone you want to know more about.


Rated PG-13. Cruelty and valor. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.