According to common consensus, Harriet is the kind of film the studios should now be making: an important chapter in American (more specifically African-American) history, brought to life by a 90% black cast, and pitched squarely to a mainstream crowd. Its forefathers would include 12 Years a Slave (where Steve McQueen demonstrated it was possible to make accessible, Oscar-winning art from the grim business of slavery), Black Panther (which underlined how studios could print big money with a largely non-white cast) and, somewhat improbably, 1993's The Fugitive, for in an unapologetic concession to multiplex mores, the writer-director Kasi Lemmons has elected to make the story of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who played a major part in establishing America's underground railroad, the basis of a rattling chase movie. It sounds ridiculous on paper, like one of those spoof movies Tracy Morgan found himself in during 30 Rock. The surprise, then, is how well it works on screen, at least as a broad-brush primer: it wasn't up for the biggest prizes this past awards season, but it'll likely endure as a particular boon to those history students who respond better to forceful images than they do to mildewing textbooks.
True, Lemmons' film displays some of the limitations of the modern American action movie. You catch it having to dial down the brutalities of slavery to land its PG-13 certificate, and indeed reassuring its audience that everything in this tale did finally turn out for the best: our heroine (Cynthia Erivo) passes through a lot more sunkissed John Toll-shot countryside than would be visible in most etchings of the period, and to the strains of swelling Terence Blanchard strings that insist this is An Inspirational True Story™. This Harriet Tubman makes smooth and swift progress, which probably wasn't always the case in reality. The film around her is rather more of an uneven ride; you grow to suspect Lemmons had to endure a lot of notes and meetings and make a fair few concessions to haul the movie onto our screens, which is why that movie is at once its own eccentric thing and vaguely compromised by its need to embrace the multiplex demographic. There are points where the film simply trips up over its own frantic pace: Harriet has no sooner left her husband (Zackary Momoh) behind when she finds out he's taken up with a woman who's pregnant with his child, and her later career as a Civil War figurehead gets rather bizarrely shrugged off in a coda. The studio may have been reluctant to make this story the basis of the expensive epic that would have entailed; they're fine with the lively B-movie Lemmons turns in.
Still, much like its heroine, it keeps on going, proving a little more nuanced in its characterisation than might have been expected. There are as many kindly white faces on screen as there are treacherous black ones, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether that's a matter of proven historical fact or simply to do with box-office expediency. It's steadied and carried by Erivo, who's established herself - in such titles as Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows - as one of the most expressive performers we currently have. Erivo finesses this script's rather harried character development on the run, and she does as good a job as anyone could of selling a modern multiplex audience on the visions that led one functionary whose path Harriet crossed to wonder whether this loose cannon had, in fact, incurred brain damage amid her pinballing across the United States. The film, to its credit, never completely sanctifies its heroine, preferring to look kindly upon her as a bit of an oddball - it allows for the possibility she was just crazy enough to attempt what she did; that she was crazy like a fox - and Erivo accesses a restless spirit (Harriet the gun-toting superhero!) that you feel might well hijack and change the course of history for the better. Some handsome craft credits aside, the great art of McQueen's film is beyond it - please refer to Lemmons' previous, somewhat overlooked Eve's Bayou for that - but then the evidence as presented would suggest Harriet Tubman herself would have had little time or patience for art. Instead, Harriet the movie hooks us, yanks us through this story, and remains just about fast and furious enough to get away with any liberties it takes.
Harriet is available on DVD through Universal from Monday.