“Harriet” is a big, conventional Hollywood bio-pic except for the parts that aren’t conventional at all. That first aspect disappoints, the second aspect tantalizes, and the movie as a whole is worthy — a stirring if somewhat ham-fisted telling of a life that needs to be known by all Americans. In the bargain, it provides a ferocious, star-making role for Cynthia Erivo, a supporting player (“Widows,” “Bad Times at the El Royale”) who’s more than ready for her close-up.
Harriet Tubman, of course, was the best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War, an escaped slave who returned again and again to liberate her people. She personally guided over 70 slaves to freedom, first to Philadelphia, and then, after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, in 1850, all the way across the Canadian border. She helped organize the 1863 Combahee River Raid that freed 750 slaves. She was a crucial part of the Abolitionist movement in the North and she crusaded for national women’s suffrage after the war. It was an astonishing life, and why it hasn’t been the subject of a major movie before now is both obvious and ridiculous. (Cicely Tyson played Tubman in a 1978 NBC miniseries.)
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” covers the first half of Tubman’s life, beginning with her final months on the Maryland plantation where she was born. Known then as Araminta “Minty” Ross, she is married to a free black man, John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), but when he petitions for her freedom, her owner (Michael Marunde) refuses. After his death, the widow (Jennifer Nettles) and her virulently racist son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) plan to separate and sell the slaves, and Minty vows to flee north. When no one will join her, she goes herself.
That initial journey — 100 miles to Philadelphia on foot — establishes the lay of the movie’s land: death-defying leaps from bridges, hairsbreadth escapes from hounds, constant exhaustion relieved by the occasional unexpected Abolitionist. Lemmons sticks to the history but also has a dramatic tale to tell, and some of the embellishments are both true in outline and awkward in detail, like a black slave-catcher (Omar J. Dorsey) who’s close to this movie’s supervillain.
“Harriet” broadens appreciably once Minty gets to Philadelphia and meets African-American businessman and activist William Still, played by Leslie Odom Jr., the original Aaron Burr (sir) from Broadway’s ”Hamilton.” She also meets Marie Buchanon (singer Janelle Monae), the (fictional) boarding-house proprietor who impresses the new arrival with the possibilities of freedom and the need to dispense with slave names. Harriet Tubman is born.
After that, the film largely alternates montages of escape and moments of pageantry. The former are exciting and inherently moving, as the woman who would come to be called “Moses” (and who many plantation owners surmised must be a white Abolitionist in blackface) sings out from the woods just beyond the fields where slaves toil. The latter represent effective Classics Illustrated cinema, marred by some jarring camerawork and a score by the reliable Terence Blanchard that nonetheless lays it on thick. As a filmmaker, Lemmons has made fine films (“Talk to Me," 2007), duds (“Black Nativity,” 2013), and one bona fide classic, 1997’s “Eve’s Bayou.” Its importance as a great American life story notwithstanding, “Harriet” falls in the middle of the pack.
The real Tubman suffered a head injury in youth — she was hit with a heavy weight intended for a nearby slave — and suffered seizures and visions for the rest of her life. The latter she ascribed to God, and “Harriet” leaves it up to us to decide whether she had brain damage or a direct line to the Almighty. The parallels to Joan of Arc are overt, though, and as far as the film’s other characters are concerned, Tubman “talks to God and it seems like he talks back.”
“Harriet” could have used more of that risk-taking eccentricity. Lemmons smartly and rightly moves the white Abolitionists to the near background and focuses on the slaves and free blacks fighting to rid the country of its original sin. The movie ignores John Brown (with whom Tubman worked closely) and Harper’s Ferry, choosing instead to leapfrog ahead to the 1863 Combahee River raid, where the recurrent images of a people rushing forth to freedom finally come to fruition. Tubman by then is already legend. Erivo, with a fire that remains rooted in pain and far-seeing purpose, keeps her stubbornly real even when the movie is shrouding her in glory.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard. Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner suburbs. 125 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content throughout — i.e., slavery — violent material and language including racist epithets)