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'Harriet' review: Engaging biopic breathes life into Harriet Tubman

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in "Harriet,"

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in "Harriet," in theaters on Friday. Credit: Focus Features / Glen Wilson

PLOT How a runaway slave from Maryland became a folk hero of the Underground Railroad.

CAST Cynthia Erivo, Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe

RATED PG-13 (violence and brutality)

LENGTH 2:05

BOTTOM LINE A conventional but engaging biopic about a crucial American figure.

When the culture wars came for the $20 bill recently, the debate over replacing Andrew Jackson's face with that of Harriet Tubman might have seemed a bit abstract. Most of us learned in school that Tubman ferried slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, though much more we probably couldn't say. As for Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, how many of us would be able to identify him as a slave-owner and vocal opponent of abolition? Their era, and its issues, often feel far away and long ago.

"Harriet," Kasi Lemmon's biopic of Tubman, attempts to turn its subject from an old daguerreotype into a living, breathing person. Thanks to an earnest performance from Cynthia Erivo as Tubman and an informative screenplay by Lemmons ("Talk to Me") and Gregory Allen Howard ("Ali"), it mostly succeeds. Though "Harriet" occasionally lapses into a messianic tone, it also does an excellent job of showing us a woman who took grave risks to fight for a principle.

Little details speak volumes in "Harriet." Tubman, born Araminta Ross in Maryland and nicknamed Minty, makes a daring escape on foot to Philadelphia and finds a near-paradise. Freed of both slavery and her slave name, Tubman walks with dignity through an integrated city, meets a self-made black businesswoman (a terrific Janelle Monáe as the hotelier Marie Buchanon) and gets her first paying job, as a maid. Tubman's decision to work for the abolitionist William Still (a charming Leslie Odom Jr.) and go back into the lion's den of the South is one that very few of us would likely make.

Tubman's sudden lapses into unconsciousness, in which clairvoyant visions help guide her and her charges to safety, may seem like a contrivance, but the historical record bears them out. Conversely, the character of Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn, of "The Favourite"), a plantation heir who becomes obsessed with recapturing the Minty he once owned, is a semi-fiction (his family was real) who conveys a deeper truth. "You gonna die right here," Tubman eventually tells him — if not by her hand, then when the South finally self-immolates in the Civil War. (A war, by the way, Tubman would fight in, leading an armed expedition to free an additional 700 slaves.)

Sometime in 2028, according to Treasury plans, we may indeed see Tubman's face on our twenties. President Donald Trump has dismissed that move as "pure political correctness," but "Harriet" makes a counter-argument — that it's a tribute to someone who helped America live up to the self-evident truths it was founded upon.

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