Toronto: Broadway Star Cynthia Erivo Arrives as Screen Actress, Oscar Contender in 'Harriet'

Kasi Lemmons' biopic is the first narrative film ever made about the most famous conductor of the 'Underground Railroad.'
Courtesy of TIFF
'Harriet'

Anyone who saw Cynthia Erivo in her towering Broadway debut as Celie in the The Color Purple, for which she won the best actress in a musical Tony in 2016, instantly knew that she had big things in her future. It turns out that not all of them center on singing.

A year after attending the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the ensemble of Steve McQueen's thriller Widows, the 32-year-old Brit returned to the fest Tuesday for the world premiere of Eve's Bayou helmer Kasi Lemmons' biopic Harriet, the first-ever film about American hero Harriet Tubman, in which Erivo stars as the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. The film, which was written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard and which Focus Features is set to release Nov. 1, was warmly received by the public at Roy Thomson Hall, but less enthusiastically greeted by critics who saw it the next day and found it a bit too hagiographic and reverent (it's at just 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

However, the one thing everyone seems to agree about is that Erivo does her part as well as anyone could. We meet Tubman as a slave on a family plantation in Maryland, back when she was known as "Minty," having been born Araminta Ross. We see her dreams crushed when the plantation owner rejects a letter in which a lawyer confirms that she, her mother and her sisters should have been freed years earlier, per the will of the person who bought them, and threatens her with sale to another plantation. We witness her gut-wrenching decision to leave behind her husband (Zackary Momoh), a free man whose future she does not want to jeopardize, and the rest of her family, and risk her life in a bid for freedom. And we see her taken in by Northern abolitionists (played very well by Leslie Odom, Jr. and Janelle Monae), only to feel compelled to go back for more of those still enslaved.

I don't imagine that Harriet had a big budget, but John Toll's cinematography and Terence Blanchard's score help to make it feel as epic as it should. At the end of the day, though, it is Ervio's performance that merits the price of admission — and that, in a relatively thin year for the best actress Oscar category, could be remembered by Academy members. (PS: Look out for her end-credits original song "Stand Up," as well!)