Last week, before I went to see director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic “Harriet,” the story of the great African American heroine Harriet Tubman that’s opening this week at Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema, I decided to read up.

I was stunned at the the incredible accomplishments of this small black woman who became the “Moses” of the slave population of Maryland. Nurse, scout, spy? Why, I wondered, hasn’t Hollywood seized on the incredible cinematic value of such a hero?

Well, Kasi Lemmons did. So here is the timid woman with the slave name of Mindy, who became Harriet Tubman, played with strength and power by a black British woman.

Be prepared to meet Cynthia Erivo, a star of Broadway and London stages, breathing life into this almost forgotten hero.

“Harriet” is the true story of a slave girl who, when her petition to her masters to make her baby a free person like her father was rejected, runs farther to the north to seek true freedom.

The film shows her narrow escape through, to her, the unknown and mysterious fields and woods of Maryland until she makes it to free Pennsylvania.

There, she’s taken in by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr. from “Hamilton” on Broadway), who runs an abolitionist safe house for escaped slaves.

Harriet is given work as a laundress and maid and is comforted by the educated boardinghouse mistress (Janelle Monae) who grooms her and shows the human respect she has never known.

Harriet feels safe here, and could have started a new life with the hundreds of other ex-slaves. That would have been the end of the story.

But haunted by dark dreams, memories of oppression and spiritual visions, she chooses to go back south, and with risk of torture and death, gathers others around her, calms their fears with her almost supernatural strength, and brings them back up North.

Each trip is more perilous than the last, with men armed with vicious dogs and weapons close on their trail.

“Harriet” has its share of clichés and moments of throat-clutching narrow escapes, but to Lemmons’ credit, they all seem to work, especially in one scene, where Harriet brings her first flock to a river’s edge that they must cross or be captured.

Terrified by the dark water, they freeze. Harriet, undeterred, with eyes closed and mumbling prayers, holds her pistol above her head and wades into the water.

When she reaches the other side, having demonstrated the shallowness of the river, the flock follows her. It’s a bit of a hammy “walks on the water” moment, but by now we love this combative hero so much, we want to applaud.

Kasi Lemmons’ and Gregory Allen Howard’s screenplay may not soar, but neither does it fall, probably because the words are spoken by the likes of respected and well-known actors like Vondie Curtis-Hall, (Lemmons’ husband), Alexis Louder and Clarke Peters (“Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri,” “Treme” and “Jack Ryan”).

Director/writer/actor Lemmons enlarges her credits here (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine” and “Talk To Me”).

“Harriet” isn’t on everyone’s best pic list of the season, but it succeeds because of the passion of the players involved, especially that of the powerful work of Cynthia Erivo, who, in the film, bears an eerie spiritual and physical resemblance to Harriet Tubman. Bravo.

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.


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