Near the end of director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of the greatest conductor ever to guide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, a Southern landowner, outraged at the way her “property” has been spirited away by the titular heroine, promises to catch her and burn her at the stake like Joan of Arc. It’s a weak reference in a generally weak script (e.g. family drama over the just cause, a declaration of “I made it this far on my own” right after numerous people have helped out, an insert-laugh-here variation on Jaws’ “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” etc.). The Joan reference is weak because the Maid of Orleans is generally regarded as a hero, not a villain; why not threaten to burn Harriet like a witch? Well, because Joan of Arc heard voices, and Harriet Tubman has visions: repetitive, blue-and-white, slo mo, and set to disjointed sounds, but always coming through right on time to save the day. And when you’re God’s chosen one, well, what can stand against you? Certainly not a bunch of sorry trackers whose dogs have a way of losing the scent. Tubman gets told that fear is her enemy, but the film doesn’t convey the constant, grinding terror of the Underground journey. Star Cynthia Erivo has the bearing and delivery for the part’s heroics, but stumbles over Tubman’s naked religiosity. And the gospel songs are gorgeously performed and cleverly deployed, but the rest of the soundtrack makes an absolute mess of the film’s mood: swoopy where it should be driven, wistful where it should be achingly tense. (2019) — Matthew Lickona
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