Mr. Movie

Mr. Movie: ‘Harriet’ a short version of a long, phenomenal life

Many of you know the name Harriet Tubman. Some just know her as a woman who helped free a few slaves and whose image — controversially for some — may soon replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

Pick any adjective relating to the word remarkable and it won’t quite describe this incredible human being. You can try extraordinary, astonishing, astounding or stunning and they still don’t give you an accurate picture.

So we’ll use remarkable. It’s not perfect but it will work.

Harriet Tubman and her exploits are now in a movie. Just some. Considering the time constraints, and Tubman’s enormous number of accomplishments, writer/director Kasi Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard do a — there’s that word again — remarkable job.

After all, Tubman is credited with 13 trips into slave-legal Maryland to help 70 slaves escape. Her daring deeds and advice led to the freedom of hundreds more. Then there’s the battle to help the freed slaves stay free and those who fought in the Civil War to get the compensation owed to them.

She also served the North as a spy and led soldiers on missions.

Her whole life, Tubman fought for the unrepresented African Americans in this country. She worked with John Brown, Fredrick Douglass, William Still and those who bravely operated the Underground Railroad.

Tubman’s efforts set precedents used by civil rights workers to follow. She did so much that — unfortunately — Lemmons (“Talk to Me,” “Eve’s Bayou,” “Black Nativity”) and Howard (“Ali,” “Remember the Titans”) give you a Cliff’s Notes-like movie version of her life.

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Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from "Harriet." Glen Wilson Associated Press

Outside of Cynthia Ervio’s performance, the movie isn’t as remarkable as the real story. By necessity it has to condense who Tubman was and what Tubman did. A TV mini-series or — I can’t believe I’m suggesting this — a series of movies might have worked better.

A two-hour film just isn’t enough.

Not enough and flawed. Lemmons never quite makes you believe her characters are in any real danger. Ervio’s performance sells the evil of slavery and the passion of Tubman but you just never feel like she, nor the other characters are in danger, or are going to be caught, killed or punished.

And even when someone is caught, Lemmons just doesn’t pull it off.

It’s a minor flaw. Most of the very good in “Harriet” centers on Ervio’s acting. That leads us back to adjectives. In this case they never quite adequately describe the power of her performance. At year’s end when the movie award nomination game begins, you can forget nominating anyone else for best actress. No one will come close to topping her incredible work.

Ervio (“Widows,” “Bad Times at the El Royale”) becomes Tubman and gives a performance that — at times — is so intense that it will have you holding your breath and tightly gripping the theater seat armrest. I promise you will leave the theater drained emotionally and physically.

That’s powerful acting and it’s acting that makes a movie that — sadly — doesn’t have enough time to tell it all, an equally powerful film.

▪ Rated PG-13 for mature themes and violence. It’s playing at the AMC Classic Kennewick 12, at the Fairchild Cinemas Queensgate 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.

▪ Rating: 5 out of 5

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