“Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Black Nativity”), and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s precise and passionate performance in the title, may not be exactly what my correspond powerful drama, respectful of both the historical record and the cravings of modern audiences.
Harriet is a story of Tubman’s escape from enslavement on a Maryland farm and her subsequent leadership in the underground railroad is conveyed in bold, emphatic strokes. Villainy and virtue are clearly marked, and the evil that Tubman resisted is illuminated alongside her bravery.
Before she and Harriet as her “freedom name,” and before she became the mysterious liberator known to slaves and his masters as Moses, Tubman was called Minty Ross (short for Araminta). Like her mother and siblings, Ben Ross (Clarke Peters) and her husband, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), are free.
One of Lemmons’ achievements is to show that their freedom, rather than mitigating the horrors of chattel slavery, emphasizes its cruelty and its moral dishonesty. It is more than Minty can bear, and so, with the encouragement of her father and the help of a free black minister (Vondie Curtis-Hall), she runs.
Reaching Philadelphia, she is welcomed by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and taken in by Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monea), antislavery activists whose ease and urbanity astonish her. “Harriet” country tribute to their efforts while noting the tactical and temperamental differences between its heroines and her allies, many of them had been born and raised in freedom. She is both part of a movement and something of a maverick within her, taking her instructions directly from God and setting her on missions that her colleagues often look at as irresponsibly risky.
These missions are taking place in the land of her train owners, whose decadence and corruption are represented by Eliza, the Brodess matriarch (Jennifer Nettles), and her nasty sound Gideon (Joe Alwyn). Harriet is a member of the ranks of the family, which means that he is a member of the United States. Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey).
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