In Brief: Cynthia Erivo’s acting is incredible in a way too short telling of one of America’s most important lives.
Many of you know the name Harriet Tubman. Some just know her as a woman who helped free a few slaves and whose image — controversially for some — may soon replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
Pick any adjective relating to the word remarkable and it won’t quite describe this incredible human being. You can try extraordinary, astonishing, astounding or stunning and they still don’t give you an accurate picture.
So we’ll use remarkable. It’s not perfect but it will work.
Harriet Tubman and her exploits are now in a movie. Just some. Considering the time constraints, and Tubman’s enormous number of accomplishments, writer/director Kasi Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard do a — there’s that word again — remarkable job.
After all, Tubman is credited with 13 trips into slave-legal Maryland to help 70 slaves escape. Her daring deeds and advice led to the freedom of hundreds more. Then there’s the battle to help the freed slaves stay free and those who fought in the Civil War to get the compensation owed to them.
She also served the North as a spy and led soldiers on missions.
Her whole life, Tubman fought for the unrepresented African Americans in this country. She worked with John Brown, Fredrick Douglass, William Still and those who bravely operated the Underground Railroad.
Tubman’s efforts set precedents used by civil rights workers to follow. She did so much that — unfortunately — Lemmons (Talk to Me, Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) and Howard (Ali, Remember the Titans) give you a Cliff’s Notes-like movie version of her life.
Outside of Cynthia Erivo’s performance, the movie isn’t as remarkable as the real story. By necessity it has to condense who Tubman was and what Tubman did. A TV mini-series or — I can’t believe I’m suggesting this — a series of movies might have worked better.
A two-hour film just isn’t enough.
Not enough and flawed. Lemmons never quite makes you believe her characters are in any real danger. Erivo’s performance sells the evil of slavery and the passion of Tubman but you just never feel like she, nor the other characters are in danger, or are going to be caught, killed or punished.
And even when someone is caught, Lemmons just doesn’t pull it off.
It’s a minor flaw. Most of the very good in Harriet centers on Ervio’s acting. That leads us back to adjectives. In this case they never quite adequately describe the power of her performance. At year’s end when the movie award nomination game begins, you can forget nominating anyone else for best actress. No one will come close to topping her incredible work.
Erivo (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale) becomes Tubman and gives a performance that — at times — is so intense that it will have you holding your breath and tightly gripping the theater seat armrest. I promise you will leave the theater drained emotionally and physically.
That’s powerful acting and it’s acting that makes a movie that — sadly — doesn’t have enough time to tell it all, an equally powerful film.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clark Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hall
Rated PG-13 for very mature themes and violence. Harriet Tubman did incredible things because incredible things needed done. That’s true courage. This movie’s greatest flaw is not having enough time to tell it all. Cynthia Erivo’s incredible performance more than makes up for not enough time. Give this a 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
Click here for theaters and show times.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.