TIFF review: Harriet

Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic gives abolitionist Harriet Tubman the superhero treatment

HARRIET GALA D: Kasi Lemmons. U.S. 125 minutes. Sep 10, 6 pm, Roy Thomson Hall Sep 10, 8 pm, Elgin Sep 11, 11:45 am, Scotiabank 2 Sep 11, 3 pm, Winter Garden Sep 14, 2:45 pm, Scotiabank 1. Rating: NNNN

Harriet Tubman, superhero? In the hands of director Lemmons and Tony-winning actor Cynthia Erivo, the famed Underground Railroad conductor is given a swashbuckling, compelling cinematic treatment that feels like the origin story for one.

Tubman’s bravery is legendary: an escaped slave turned abolitionist/political activist, suffragist and spy, she became the elusive leader of over a dozen Underground Railroad missions that successfully freed nearly 100 enslaved men, women and children. In Harriet, her courage is profoundly felt, sometimes terrifyingly so due to the sharp, suspenseful pacing that never lets up, much like Tubman’s life.

When Tubman defiantly begins returning to Dorchester County, Maryland, to free loved ones and strangers, it’s difficult not to grip your chair in fear that she’ll get caught by soulless slave hunters and a former master – even if you know she was repeatedly successful against all odds. 

Erivo strikingly embodies all of Tubman’s stages to glory, from enslaved-yet-defiant young woman, to bold survivor and commanding leader. It’s a moving performance that lingers long after the film is over and will leave many feeling empowered.

The fact that this is the first feature biopic of Tubman to hit the big screen is both remarkably surprising and sadly not.

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