A Long Overdue Biopic
Harriet Tubman has been a hero to African-Americans since the Civil War. She was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland during the time when plantation owners purchased slaves to run their farms and fancy homes in the South. As such an unfortunate girl to have been born during that era, she was severely beaten and whipped by her various “owners.”
Harriet had always wanted to achieve freedom from her bosses. By 1849 she managed to pull off a successful escape to Philadelphia, a liberal town at the time. She wanted to rescue her family, so she returned to Maryland and brought out her relatives. She began helping other slaves to escape and established what became known as the Underground Railroad. Dozens of people were brought to freedom by Tubman through her working with antislavery activists who provided safe houses along the way to Philadelphia.
When the Civil War was fought between the North and South from 1861 to 1865, Tubman jumped right in and worked for the Union Army as a cook and a nurse. Seeing she had additional talents, she was asked to be a spy as well. During this time, her efforts helped liberate more than 700 slaves.
It is with this background director Kasi Lemmons and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard conjured up the story for their Focus Films movie Harriet. Taking on the part of Ms. Tubman is Cynthia Erivo, a welcome transfer from England, where she was born in 1987. Just becoming known in the US, Ms. Erivo startled theater goers with her portrayal as Celie in the 2015 Broadway production of “The Color Purple,” for which she won the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical and a Grammy for the cast album and many other kudos.
Tubman’s original master is played by the model-handsome Joe Alwyn, here portraying a meaner-than-a-pitbull guy with a nasty disposition. He’s hell-bent on getting Tubman back into the cotton fields and out to capture her at any cost. Alwyn is a reluctant movie star and prefers to stay in the shadows of his real-life girlfriend Taylor Swift’s skirts. Publicity shy, why is he in movies? He previously was in Olivia Coleman’s Oscar® winning period picture The Favourite as a tasty dessert in the English royal court. But, in this film Alwyn shows his acting chops and shines in all his scenes.
Since the emphasis is mostly on Tubman and her exploits, not many of the other actors get to excel in their scenes, with a few exceptions. Jennifer Nettles steals the screen during her emotional outbursts as Eliza, a plantation owner scheduled for ruin if she doesn’t get her slaves returned. Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall commands his dramatic scenes as the protective Reverend Green. And Janelle Monae tears your heart out as Marie, a character running a safe house, but who is abused by the plantation owners.
The film Harriet runs somewhat overlong and repeats many of Ms. Tubman’s trips back and forth to rescue relatives, friends and strangers in her quest to fight slavery. The plot kind of sags in the middle but soon picks up again as she is hunted down by her former “owners” and put to task for stealing away many of the plantation owners’ working staffs.
Harriet Tubman was a true pioneer in the fight for human rights for all, but especially for Blacks and women. The film doesn’t show any of her activities when she acted as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Ms. Tubman lived to the ripe old age of 91 and died at her own farm in Auburn, New York on March 10, 1913. Go see the film about her life; you will be enlightened.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)