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by Jay Seaver

"Not as much as an American legend deserves, but more than she's had before."
3 stars

"Harriet" often feels a bit like the trailers for faith-based movies, so built around the power of prayer and/or visions that they don't actually show their characters doing anything of consequence and making them feel less proactive when they do. Harriet Tubman did astonishing things, but this telling of her story focuses enough on her "spells" and visions that it's like her own biography doesn't give her enough credit.

As it starts, "Minty" (Cynthia Erivo) is owned by the Brodess family, though married to free man John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) and looking to start a family as a free woman. Even taking when and where she lives into account, she's got an argument - provisions had been made in the will of Gideon Brodess's grandfather to free Minty's mother and her family, but slaveowners tend to ignore such agreements. Punished for talking back and threatened with sale to a faraway plantation, Minty escapes, with surprising help from Reverend Green (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who normally pleases the masters by emphasizing the parts of the Bible that stress obedience and good behavior. She evades capture and makes her way to Philadelphia, where William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe) welcome her and encourage her to reject her slave name, but initially try to dissuade her from attempting to rescue her husband and family.

She does, of course, despite her small stature and having just recently learned how to read, and it lays the importance of Tubman's story beyond the basic good of freeing slaves out clearly: You may first do something out of desperation to save yourself, but the true test is being willing to do it again to save others, getting smarter and more ambitious about it, even as your personal connection to those you would help decreases. That Tubman has visions which seem to occasionally steer her right doesn't invalidate her story, but director Kasi Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard could maybe interrogate it a little more. After all, part of her escape is possible because Reverend Green says God's word is one thing but secretly acts contrary to his preaching, and her making the choice to act despite not obviously being suited for it, and building herself into the woman she became, could perhaps get a little more time and the things that worked out a little less.

Cynthia Erivo does plenty more than just look like she's hearing voices or being frustrated by earthly troubles, of course, and there's never any reason to take issue with the performance she gives, making Tubman both larger than life without quite doing anything that would tip her hand within the film. There's never a moment where she doesn't feel like someone who has been as a slave and can't shake all the messages she's absorbed about being less than fully human, even when she pulls out enough daring enough to be more, and that's what makes her exceptional. It makes it difficult for all those playing the less-astounding to make the same kind of impression - Zackary Momoh, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, and others play well off her but soon recede a bit - but that's how it goes sometimes with people who become legends.

Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons gets a little stuck trying to compress a life into two hours, to the point where one can sometimes feel the movie sliding into the template, but the details tend to grab interest. There's a sort of imposing clarity to the wide-open skies and something to how the Brodess manor looks both imposing and kind of shabby depending on whether Harriet is looking up at the white people on the patio for permission or trying to break in to save her sister,. Moments of action are often scored with bombastic music that nevertheless feels like it could have been made in the 1850s, but other moments pare it down to the bone, as spirituals become communication right under the masters' noses. Class becomes an issue even when the gap isn't quite so vast, and Lemmons is smart to emphasize the parts of Tubman's missions that play like something out of a Cold War-era spy movie - "show me your papers" is something even while male audience members will get.

It is, ultimately, a story and life too amazing for a person not to find inspiration. "Harriet" may not be the best movie that can be made from her life, but it tells a good story and ends in a way that reinforces that she fought incredibly hard even though what she wanted from life was modest. If that's what sticks with an audience comes out of the movie, it's certainly done its job.

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originally posted: 12/05/19 01:39:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  01-Nov-2019 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Jan-2020


  DVD: 28-Jan-2020

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