The grace notes almost outnumber the grimaces in “Harriet,” an insistently melodramatic and sometimes affecting film biography of Abolitionist and heroine of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman.
Edit out the theatrical, eye-rolling third act, and Cynthia Erivo‘s fiery, righteous turn as the escaped slave who led scores of other enslaved Negroes to freedom in the mid-19th century, would stand tall — or at least taller than she does in the closing credits of director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons’ film.
The fact that the enterprise never looks as epic as its heroine, that too many supporting roles show a production short of cash to hire “names” and charismatic villains, wouldn’t matter as much. The speechifying, predicting the near future (the Civil War) and other excesses of Lemmons’ (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk to Me”) and Gregory Howard Allen’s (“Ali,” “Remember the Titans”) script only truly grate in that never-ending finale.
We meet Araminta “Minty” Tubman (Erivo, of “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale”) just as her husband (Zackary Momoh) is presenting their claim, drafted by a lawyer, for freedom to their Maryland “massa.” John Tubman was a free man who’d hired a lawyer, seeking to enforce a will that should have granted Minty and her parents freedom.
Their owner (Mike Marunde) isn’t having it, and his cruelest son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) counsels selling Minty off to head off the trouble she was stirring up.
“Harriet,” the film and the heroine who will wear that name, leaps into action, putting her on the run to avoid “being sold South.” The local Negro preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall, best of the supporting players) may lead hymns about keeping “your hands on the plow,” and sermonize Biblical obedience. But when Minty shows up at his door, he is the man with the plan.
Illiterate Minty sprints into the night, makes her way 100 miles (via the preacher’s connections) and escapes to discover the “colored” elite of Philadelphia, where “The Committee” runs the Underground Railroad, William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) publishes their Abolitionist broadsides and the prim and ladylike Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monae) shows escaped slaves how to fit into white society.
“Walk like you got a right to!”
Minty takes a new name, her mother’s real name — Harriet. And before too long, Harriet, a pious woman who has “spells” in which she communes with the Lord (a head injury may have caused these), decides those she loved must experience the freedom she has claimed.
She starts making treks South to free her husband, her family and others.
The grandest conceit of this telling of her epic story is the way Harriet, who wore disguises and used fake papers to make her way into the South, came by her nickname “Moses.”
It wasn’t just the fact she was leading her people to “the promised land.” In the film, she hides in the woods just off the fields where the hands are working, and sings (Erivo played a jazz singer in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” and is Aretha Franklin in the upcoming TV miniseries. Yeah, she’s got pipes.). She sings “Go Down, Moses,” with its lyrics demanding the Pharaoh “let my people go.”
The field hands hear her, drop their tools, and follow her.
These moments are electric, up to a point. Repetition eventually wears out even this intensely moving and magical device.
Erivo runs as if her life depended on it, flashes her eyes as if she Talks with The Lord and “The Lord talks back,” as one convert to her cause puts it. And that’s a good thing.
Because the villains here are almost silent-movie dastardly, with Alwyn looking like he took time off from a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band to blast us with some Old Time Racism.
“Having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can play with it, give it a name. But one day you might have to sell it or eat it!”
The word “Negro” never figures in the script. Everybody, Abolitionists and Harriet herself, labels the black folks they’re dealing with by the Biblical-age term for less than human property — slaves. That’s tin-eared screenwriting, and you would have expected much better, given the credentials of the writers.
Slave hunters and slave owners keep staking out the same wooden bridge to intercept their escapees on their flight north across the Mason-Dixon Line. It never works. They never learn.
Versions of Frederick Douglas and John Brown turn up, the rising tensions and Congressional stop-gaps that pushed the country toward Civil War are addressed.
And while there’s a historical exclamation point to one event depicted in the third act, it all plays as dramatically-flat, subtlety-abandoned theatricality, and takes the wind right out of whatever forward motion the first two acts had.
Tubman’s case to be on the $20 bill, as a heroine straight out of American myth, is made, a brave Christian woman sprinting down the path of the righteous. “Harriet” stumbles when it makes her more mythic than human, and less the woman of action than she was.
MPAA Rating: PG-13, violence, racial epithets, profanity
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monae, Vondie Curtis Hall, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn and Tim Guinee
Credits: Directed by Kasi Lemmons, script by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmns. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:05