- Sophie Willard
- 11 October 2019
LFF 2019: Cynthia Erivo is the compelling centre of an audience-friendly retelling of the story of the great Harriet Tubman
Though a celebrated figure in American history, many in the UK will not be familiar with abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery in Maryland, and in 1849 escaped. Tubman subsequently carried out numerous rescue missions to help family, friends and others flee, and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and secret routes that slaves used to escape to the Northern United States and Canada.
This biopic is the first theatrical film to tell her story, and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), who also co-wrote the script, has endeavoured to create an audience-friendly adventure, focusing on Tubman's years as a young adult. As such, it's rather formulaic – albeit nonetheless impressive thanks to Cynthia Erivo's robust central presence. After standout performances in last year's Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, the London-born Erivo brings gravitas and steeliness to this compelling woman. In a key scene where Harriet steps over a significant border and towards the rising sun, Erivo portrays a giddy mix of joy, relief and awe, her hands raised before her.
Lemmons understands the tonal balance required for the material. She also incorporates an important historical accuracy: the slaves' use of coded songs, such as 'Wade in the Water,' to communicate with each other.
Leslie Odom Jr and Janelle Monáe are underserved in supporting roles – this is undoubtedly Erivo's film. And, with a lot of narrative ground to cover, the script is stretched thin across several key events, hurrying through them instead of investing them with the depth they deserve. Ultimately, this feels like only a surface-level exploration of an incredible figure – one who surely deserves further filmic attention – but it will rightly ensure that Tubman's story is now more widely known.
Screening on Fri 11 and Sun 13 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 22 Nov.