Cynthia Erivo’s powerful performance as the heroic Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery to become a freedom fighter for the Underground Railroad, is the highlight of the first biopic about the American abolitionist.
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons takes on the enormous task of telling this legendary story in just over two hours. The result is a thorough and inspiring film with good performances from a sensational cast of black actors and actresses.
Taking place in 1849 Maryland where Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo), is born into slavery on the Brodess Farm, she marries John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) a former slave but now a free man. Minty’s father Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) is also free but her mother Harriet ‘Rit’ Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and siblings remain the property of the Brodess family who refuses to set them free.
Jennifer Nettles plays matriarch Eliza Brodess, who views her slaves as commodities that increase the value of the family’s farm. Her son Gideon (Joe Alwyn), a wicked man like his father, is alluded to in a weird, sadistic way. He has a crush on Minty and refuses to let her live with her husband John.
Frustrated, Minty wants to be free and she gives up everything, electing to leave her husband and family behind and goes on the run. Along the way, Minty receives help from a free man, the Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Minty is told to follow the river and the North Star at night and after outwitting Gideon and his men trying to capture her, Minty goes on the long arduous journey through the wilderness.
An important historical part of the movie is when a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and a historian, asks Minty what name she would like to take as a free woman, she symbolically chooses “Harriet” after her mother and “Tubman” after her husband.
Selfishly, Harriet could have stayed put in the city where she was residing, considering she had been given shelter by business owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) who runs a boarding house and who was born free. Harriet feels like she’s been called by God to return to Maryland to free her enslaved family from their plight.
Harriet was like a “Moses” of her time because she led dozens of slaves to freedom. Cynthia Erivo is the film’s standout star, and at ties the movie seems a little dreary, but we have to understand at that time, slavery was horrific and there is no other way to tell the story like it was. But with the story of Harriet we get to see why her story needed to be told.