Review: 'Harriet' a respectful if traditional tribute to Harriet Tubman

Cynthia Erivo stars as the escaped slave who led others to freedom in biopic that takes standard route

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Harriet Tubman was a transcendent historical figure who deserves a transcendent biopic in her honor. 

"Harriet" is not that. Co-writer and director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou") creates a fairly standard effort that doesn't live up to the might and will of its subject. But if it gets a few more people to learn the story of Tubman, well, it can't be all bad.  

Cynthia Erivo in "Harriet."

"Widows'" Cynthia Erivo is Tubman, known as Minty in her early years, who escaped slavery from a plantation in Bucktown, Maryland in 1849 at age 27. Cornered on a bridge by white men with guns at either side, she chooses the nuclear option and jumps into the cold river below. She has known a life of shackles, and she makes a choice to "be free or die." The leap is physical as well as metaphorical.  

Minty winds up in Philadelphia, where she can live a free existence, but it's not in her constitution to take the easy road. She goes back to free more slaves, including her husband John (Zackary Momoh), and takes on even more missions after that, eventually guiding more than 70 slaves to freedom across the Underground Railroad. 

Again, it's an extraordinary story, and "Harriet" somehow marks the first time Tubman's story has come to the big screen. But Lemmons' telling hits all the notes of a Tubman book report without creating the dramatic emotional swells that beg to be hit. It tries, with Terence Blanchard's melodramatic score over-emoting early and often. You want to shut down the score and let the story tell itself.

"Harriet" often feels in awe of its subject, like it's staring at her through museum glass. There's a better, bolder story to be told from Tubman's life. "Harriet" is a start, but it never catches fire.




Rated PG-13: thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets

Running time: 125 minutes