Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

dir Kasi Lemmons
scr Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
prd Debra Martin Chase, Gregory Allen Howard, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
with Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr, Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn, Zackary Momoh, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Omar J Dorsey, Henry Hunter Hall, Deborah Olayinka Ayorinde, Tim Guinee
release US 1.Nov.19,
UK 22.Nov.19
19/US Focus 2h05

odom alwyn curtis-hall
london film fest

monae and erivo
Harriet Tubman's life was astonishing, so it's a shame that filmmaker Kasi Lemmons and cowriter Gregory Allen Howard recount it in such an over-worthy way. Their script emphasises the myth while contorting to create a kind of action-thriller structure, which leaves most characters feeling undeveloped. Thankfully, the true story is strong enough to keep the audience gripped, as is the gifted Cynthia Erivo in the title role.
In 1849 Maryland, the slave Minty (Erivo) is married to the free John Tubman (Momoh), but is in danger of being sold by her owner Gideon (Alwyn). To avoid this she runs, using the "underground railway" to escape to Pennsylvania, where she connects with activist William (Odom) and boarding house owner Marie (Monae), and rechristens herself Harriet. She then returns to free her family. Over subsequent raids, she becomes known as Moses, conveying escaped slaves to Canada when the US Congress allows slave-hunters to enter free states. And Gideon is determined to stop her.
The story features a range of colourful side characters, most notably the quirky tracker Walter (Hall), who is won over to Harriet's side, while his beefy cohort Bigger Long (Dorsey) teams up with Gideon. The script continually simplifies characters as good or bad, and it also emphasises Harriet's devout faith, including several moments when she hears God speaking directly to her. These and other somewhat apocryphal anecdotes make the movie feel a little cheesy.

So it's even more remarkable that Erivo makes Harriet so vivid, an unstoppable force who makes the men around her look like wimps. She's a terrific film character, easy to root for. And Erivo's gorgeous singing voice is put to great use in plaintive calls to action. The characters around her are much thinner, some basically just place-holders, even with solid actors playing them. Alwyn had the most potential, but he must grapple with Gideon's childhood connection to Harriet without any support from the screenplay.

This is a reverent look at Harriet Tubman's real-life heroism, which had a major impact on American history. But the film isn't particularly artful, with rather basic photography and music, for example. So while it's gripping and inspiring, it's lacking in the dramatic nuance that might have brought people and events to more vital life on-screen. Although the more inexcusable issue is that it has taken so long to make a major movie about this singularly important woman.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 13.Nov.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall