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film review

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons's Harriet.Glen Wilson/Focus Features

  • Harriet
  • Directed by Kasi Lemmons
  • Written by Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard
  • Starring Cynthia Erivo
  • Classification PG
  • 123 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

There’s no question that Harriet Tubman is a great U.S. hero. Born into slavery in 1822, she was an integral guide on the Underground Railroad and went on to become an abolitionist, a suffragette and the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the U.S. Civil War. (She was due to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, until the Trump administration put on the brakes.)

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There’s no question that she’s an ideal subject for a biopic. And there’s no question that Harriet’s co-writer and director, Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me), and its star, Cynthia Erivo (Widows, the coming series Genius: Aretha Franklin), fervently desire to do justice to Tubman’s legacy and accomplishments. The film includes some terrific, haunting details, such as the songs enslaved people used as coded communication. The pint-sized Erivo captures the pint-sized Tubman’s determination and fire. And by focusing on the violence slavery did to families, Lemmons makes us feel its outrages afresh.

However, there is such a thing as being too reverential, and too many scenes – including one where a roomful of white abolitionists applaud Tubman – insist on Tubman’s greatness, instead of letting us discover it.

Harriet opens Nov. 1