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No sweet little old lady, the hero of ‘Harriet’ is a woman of action and moral courage

Cynthia Erivo, left, with Aria Brooks, stars as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.” (Glen Wilson/Focus Features)
(3 stars)

A movie starring Cynthia Erivo — and co-starring Leslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monáe — cries out to be a musical. But “Harriet,” in which Erivo plays American icon Harriet Tubman, dispenses with interpretive flourishes or showy set pieces simply to tell its story straight and true.

That story is of a young woman who was born into slavery and who, in the mid-19th century, dared to escape her owners’ Eastern Shore plantation, travel more than 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, then dedicate her life to leading other enslaved people to freedom, eventually becoming a leader in the abolitionist and suffrage movements.

The image most of us have of Tubman is of the noble older woman wearing a headscarf and somewhat inscrutable expression. With “Harriet,” she is rescued from that image to become a vital, fearless, spiritually driven hero whose physical bravery is only equaled by her moral courage. Struck on the head as an adolescent, Tubman was subject, throughout her life, to visions that she attributed to God speaking to and through her. Here, she emerges not just as a dynamic leader — the Moses that so many called her — but as someone in tune with higher forces impelling her to fulfill a mission she might not always fully understand.

Co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” begins in 1849, when Tubman — born Araminta “Minty” Ross — is still living in Dorchester County. Although legally she and her siblings were supposed to be freed, her owners are keeping her as a veritable prisoner, underlining how slavery was a system, not just of free labor, but of kidnapping, theft, fraud and torture. After receiving visions and consulting with her father, Tubman decides to risk escape, eluding slave catchers, collaborationists and hounds literally at her heels. Once in Philadelphia, she meets William Still (Odom) and Marie Buchanon (Monáe), an activist and business owner, respectively, who introduce Tubman to a hitherto unknown world of black prosperity and political agency.

It’s Still who inducts Tubman into the Underground Railroad, which will become Tubman’s biggest claim to fame (and, to proslavery forces, notoriety). Compact and focused, Erivo plays Tubman with a combination of athleticism and somberness that gives the lie to the “sweet little old lady” persona some might associate with the heroine of schoolbooks and postage stamps. Here, she’s a woman of action, an agent of change who, when she’s not in prayerful communication with God, is getting to work interceding on God’s behalf.

Peppered with tense action sequences and propelled by a characteristically gorgeous musical score by Terence Blanchard, “Harriet” is the kind of instructional, no-nonsense biopic that may not take many artistic risks or sophisticated stylistic departures but manages to benefit from that lack of pretension. This is an ideal introduction — or reintroduction — not just to Tubman, but to the inhumane system that she refused to accept. Clear, linear, sometimes bluntly obvious, “Harriet” is a rich, enlightening portrait — as sturdy and straightforward as the title character herself.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements throughout, violence and coarse language, including racial epithets. 125 minutes.