Cynthia Erivo knows how to make an entrance.
In “Harriet,” her first starring film role and one she signed for before she had any big screen experience at all, the British actress galvanizes the proceedings as Harriet Tubman, a figure of rescue and resistance so legendary she is scheduled to take her place on the $20 bill.
In work that emphasizes the unstoppable power of a persuasive performance, Erivo not only convincingly conveys the strength of the celebrated abolitionist’s fierce personality, she creates her as a realistic, multi-sided character, a complex woman of formidable self-belief and not any kind of plaster saint.
Erivo, of course, is not exactly a beginner. Seen on screen in last year’s “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale,” she’s already won a lead actress Tony and other awards for “The Color Purple,” so it’s no surprise that her work here elevates the handsomely mounted “Harriet” to a higher emotional level than it would otherwise have achieved.
Despite Tubman’s eventful and significant life, which most famously included a decade as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading slaves to freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War, she has never been the subject of a big screen biopic before.
So, as directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard, “Harriet” is significant for the story it tells as much as if not more so than for the way it tells it. It’s an important and involving event because a mainstream, traditional film on this woman is way past long overdue.
And because Lemmons was determined, as she’s said in interviews, to avoid “the ‘fuzzification’ of African American heroes, where we make them kind of cuddly and take all the edges off of them,” her film’s Tubman so fiercely goes her own way that we worry for her safety — even though the white antagonists arrayed against her can seem like cardboard figures and our sense of history tells us that everything is going to be OK.
The first time we meet the film’s namesake, at this point in her life known as Araminta “Minty” Ross, the year is 1849; the place, a plantation in Maryland’s Dorchester County, and the young woman is flat on her back experiencing the visions that we come to recognize as one of her defining characteristics.
For both in visions and premonitions, this woman trusts completely that God is in communication with her, calling an early injury to her head an occurrence that simply “made God’s voice more clear.”
At this moment, however, earthly things are more on her mind. Though herself a slave, she’s married to free black man John Tubman (Zackary Momoh), and he’s consulted a lawyer who says a will left by her owner’s great-grandfather stipulates that both her mother and she should have been freed years ago.
But that information turns the owner apoplectic, so much so that control of the plantation passes to his widow, Eliza (country star Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland), and their son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who has known Minty all her life.
That familiarity, and a hinted-at earlier infatuation, however, have gone sour, and Gideon now refers to Minty as a favorite pig he refuses to get too attached to. In line with that, he threatens to sell her farther south, insuring that she will never see her family again.
The realization that that grim future is a distinct possibility so horrifies Minty that she decides to take off for freedom all by herself, disregarding her husband’s worries that she needs him to come along because she can’t read and is subject to those incapacitating spells.
First, however, she says goodbye to her father, Ben (“The Wire’s” Clarke Peters), who, in a touching moment, refuses to look at her face so he can later deny having seen her. When she says, “I’m going to be free or die,” it’s with such conviction we know she means it literally.
Against considerable odds, Minty gets to Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, a Tony winner for “Hamilton”), head of that city’s Anti-Slavery Society, who is astonished at her “just me and the Lord” feat.
Still encourages her to change her name (she picks Harriet Tubman) and arranges her to board with Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a free black woman who looks like someone from another planet to the newly escaped slave.
For most people, this kind of success would be the end of the story, but Tubman is not even close to most people. She decides against Still’s advice (“Don’t tell me what I can’t do”) to go back home to rescue her husband, but once she gets there, things turn out to be more complex than she had anticipated.
As Tubman begins the series of rescues that will create her legend, the white people in the area, especially Gideon, get increasingly frantic, even hiring a celebrated black slave-catcher named Bigger Long (an excellent Omar J. Dorsey).
Though “Harriet” falters when it adds increasing amounts of action melodrama to the mix, the truth of Tubman’s life, like leading Union soldiers during the Civil War, continues to astonish, as does the performance of the woman who brings her to life.
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In limited release