Based on a true story, 'Harriet' focuses on American abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman (Erivo) following her escape from slavery in the 1840s and her subsequent missions, risking life and liberty, to rescue dozens of other slaves via the Underground Railroad network.
Director Kasi Lemmons relies on a pretty traditional biopic structure for the film which is a solid, if generic way of relaying the story. However, by infusing the narrative with near-magical realist elements (that do have some basis in reality), 'Harriet' presents itself in many ways like a stealth superhero origin story. Harriet's powers extend beyond the courage, empathy and ingenuity for which she is remembered: the film opens as she is having one of her 'spells' - premonitions of the future, which warn of impending danger or trauma. These visions, which she attributes to having a special connection with God, inform the movie at several pivotal points, and not only aid her own escape, but help Harriet guide a cohort of fugitive slaves through the forest and even through a river bed to freedom.
The superhero allusions continue as Harriet is seen donning disguises and catching the attention of slaves she wants to rescue by belting out 'Go Down Moses', earning her the nickname 'Moses'. (Well, it beats ‘Tubman’, which suggests some kind of jacuzzi salesman.) Emphasising Harriet's role as a masked vigilante, working in tandem with a covert cohort of agents, with a secret identity and a musical calling card amps up the action and does make for a functional thriller.
The downside of taking this tack is that the film suffers a little for how tropey it gets, sticking to clichés and structures that characterise both the biopic and the superhero movie, to the extent that it takes significant poetic license with Tubman's life. The most egregious example may be the invention of her nemesis, Gideon Broadus (Alwyn), Harriet's former master's son who, in the world of the film, indirectly causes the head injury which triggers the onset of her 'visions.' Gideon's pursuit of and obsession with Harriet feels like a redundant element, as do scenes from the perspective of the ‘big house’ where the slavers fret over their loss of income.
Though the structure and some of the plotting is dubious, the film has other strengths. Cynthia Erivo is wonderful as Harriet, capturing her progression from her down-to-earth, almost naive nature into a hardened agent of resistance, while still retaining the gentle, apparently divinely-imbued optimism that drives her forward in her quest.
The use of music is also excellent, with echoed hymnals haunting John Toll's stunning cinematography, and a stirring needle-drop of Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman' accompanying a fast-paced montage. Indeed, considering the cast contains Erivo, who is an established musical theatre performer, Leslie Odom Jr. from 'Hamilton', and Janelle Monae, it's surprising there isn’t more of a musical element; but perhaps that would have been a bridge too far considering the genre-juggling already on display.
Despite its conventional biopic structure and occasional descent into pulpy genre tropes, 'Harriet' is a compelling and powerful origin story led by a triumphant performance from Cynthia Erivo.