Kasi Lemmons directs Cynthia Erivo, Clarke Peters and Leslie Odom Jr. in the pre-Civil War biopic about a defiant slave turned extraordinary Underground Railroad ‘conductor’.
This has so many fine qualities… it is difficult to see why it struggles to be more than a perfunctory history lesson. Taking the most action packed period of the female abolitionist’s life… from her days on the run, to her returning south to free others, to her leadership of a battalion in the Civil War… it really should be more way exciting than this. Cynthia Erivo adds humanity and spark even to the moments when the script is a little frightened to put words in the icon’s mouth. The location work looks sumptuous, full credit to John Toll. Strangely, I think this occasionally repetitive, often overtly pious, production just needs more room to breathe. An extra half an hour so the better elements can stew up with some meaty flavour. Those perilous convoys through slave catchers and lynch mobs should have more to them religious messaging and near misses. They should be sustained sequences fraught with risk, and exploited for their inherent excitement. Only a set piece where the safe haven of Philadelphia is deemed searchable by plantation owners has the visceral thrill of danger. And this hero put herself in harm’s way continually for the freedom of others throughout her admirable life. This should be Braveheart, not Double Civics.
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