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A New Harriet Tubman Biopic Reminds Us of One of History’s Greatest Leaders

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One of the best moments in Harriet, although a little heavy-handed, comes without words. Harriet Tubman, played by the talented Cynthia Erivo, is on the brink of freedom after escaping the bondage of a Maryland plantation. Following a series of near misses with slave captors, she's dropped off in a field in the early morning to walk across the Pennsylvania border on her own. This is when the orchestral music swells and director Kasi Lemmons lets the scene breathe. As Tubman, Erivo reaches out her fingers as the sun shines onto her face. Here in this moment we can see what it is to get that first taste of freedom.

In so much of this film, shockingly one of the first biopics about this badass American female, Tubman spends much of her time giving long-winded speeches about the meaning of freedom. While the sentiment is important, much of this film, which opens nationwide Friday, could have been improved with less telling and more showing. 

As the film progresses, we learn that Tubman isn't interested in living freely alone without her husband and family. Instead, she remains in Philadelphia for just a year, making friends with the wonderful Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom, Jr., planning a way to go back to where slavery is still legal to rescue those she holds most dear.

As a biopics go, this one is pretty narrow in scope. The script, penned by Lemmons and Gregory Allan Howard, thankfully doesn't delve too much into Tubman's childhood, or try to stuff all of its heroine's lengthy list of abolitionist and suffragette movement accomplishments into its two-hour runtime.

Instead it mostly deals with Tubman's Underground Railroad leadership in the 1850s. 

What makes this film a little less paint-by-numbers than other historic stories meant to educate is its depiction of religion. Tubman gets flashes of the future and says that God shows her how not to get caught when leading slaves to safety. Although it is revealed she had a serious head injury as a child, she's always taken seriously. In a world where humans do terrible things to one another, Tubman keeps the faith and expects everyone around her to as well.

 Erivo, a stage actor who scored Hollywood roles in last year's Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, does get to show her range (and beautiful singing voice) here. She offers a layered portrayal, leaning into Tubman's follow-me-or-perish approach. At one point in the film, when a runaway slave refuses to follow her leadership, she points a gun at him. Another time she half-heartedly points a gun at her own sister. She just wants them all to be free.

Harriet Tubman saved the lives of hundreds of slaves. This new film about the Moses of her generation serves as a reminder of an extraordinary American life, and, once on DVD, will most likely get plenty of runtime in high school history classrooms around the country.

We can all use more Tubman in our lives, and this is a worthy addition to the catalog.

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