There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.
There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.
The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.
Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.