Cynthia Erivo has a singing voice like thick velvet; its richness wraps around you, like it could keep you warm in the cold. In “Harriet,” in which Erivo plays the 19th-century freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, that voice rings out in the quiet, singing traditional spirituals and serving as a beacon in the dark. When the movie’s over, you leave the theater still hearing that voice; it’s as if you could hold it in your hands, like a gift you’re reluctant to surrender.
Erivo, like the real-life Tubman, is a tiny woman, barely 5 feet tall, but the forcefulness of her voice and her presence brings “Harriet” to vivid life. Directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk to Me”), the film is a long-overdue portrait of an American hero. Tubman, a black woman born enslaved in 1820s Maryland, endured horrific abuse (as a child, she was nearly killed when an overseer threw an iron at her head) before escaping to freedom in her 20s, making her way alone — with help from the Underground Railroad movement — on a perilous hundred-mile journey to freedom in Philadelphia. Not content with merely saving herself, Tubman made repeated trips back to Maryland, guiding dozens of others to freedom at great risk to her own safety — so much so that she earned the nickname “Moses.” In a long and eventful life, she served in the Union army during the Civil War, became a leader in the anti-slavery movement, and fought unceasingly for racial and gender equality.
This story is a lot of weight for one movie to carry — in a better world, we would have had multiple big-screen Tubman biopics by now — and Lemmons takes a careful, conventional route. “Harriet” is a handsome and surprisingly quiet film, taking the time to honor the main character’s deep religious faith. While the film by necessity hurries through many of the events in Tubman’s life, sometimes sacrificing nuance in its haste, Lemmons lets us linger briefly on vivid moments: the dark blue light of night as she races northward, alone; the autumn beauty of the landscape, on the morning Harriet crosses a state line into Philadelphia (she jumps, into a new life); the weary gaze worn by Harriet’s sister, who declines escape. (“Don’t judge us,” the sister says, an entire lifetime in her words. “Can’t everybody run.”)
And Erivo, a Broadway and West End star appearing in only her third movie, lifts “Harriet” up and carries it, delivering both barnburning speeches (listen to the bloodcurdling revulsion she finds in the phrase “this monster called slavery”) and quiet moments of vulnerability. This Harriet knows fear all too well, but won’t give it lodging. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia, a friendly black man on the street reminds her to “walk like you’ve got a right to.” She straightens, in a movement both tiny and vast; she’s become, before our eyes, free.
★★★ “Harriet,” with Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Janelle Monae, Vondie Curtis-Hall. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, from a screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets. Opens Nov. 1 at multiple theaters.