The question of how to make a good biopic is one that's been a particular fascination around these parts for a while, and long-time readers have heard my theory that, broadly speaking, there are full biographical movies that start in a person's youth and end in their old age, and these are typically dull; and there are films that recall a single short event in a person's life, and these are typically much better. Harriet suggests a third path: to focus first and foremost on making a movie, and letting the needs of story and drama triumph over the demands of writing history.

Harriet is about Harriet Tubman, the legendary anti-slavery activist and prolific Underground Railroad conductor who's likely the most prominent African-American woman of the 19th Century; it is, as the film's promotional team has been quick to point out, the first movie about Tubman, at least if we discount made-for-TV movies (in fact, I can't confidently point to any other theatrical portrayal of Tubman other than a very small role in, of all things, 2012's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). This would make it seem to be ripe for treatment as groaningly self-serious Oscarbait of the first order, and there are certainly places where the film clearly has arch, lifeless respectability on its mind: the final scene, especially, which doesn't really follow from anything else we've encountered in the movie, and clearly cares more about placing Tubman in her rightful spot in history more than rounding off the story that's been told up to that point. Mostly, though, the film's approach is much less about giving us a civics lesson than it is about telling a yarn. Specifically, this is basically a Western revenge thriller, only mildly inconvenienced by taking place in the U.S. South rather than the West; but the ingredients are all there, and the final conflict between the film's Harriet (played by Cynthia Erivo) and the main villain is a traditional Western standoff straight down the line.

There's probably a debate to be had whether The First Theatrical Motion Picture About Harriet Tubman really ought to function as a genre movie, massaging or flat-out inventing events and characters in service to its dramatic spine, but I don't think there's much of a debate that Harriet is much more enjoyable to watch in this form than it would have been if it was a more conventional biopic. Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons's screenplay works as a story above all: it compresses time according the needs of its conflict rather than to fit as much history as possible into 125 minutes, and it crafts a predominately fictional antagonist in the form of petty manchild slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), the man from whom Harriet escaped in 1849. It's in the treatment of Gideon that the film shows its hand: he gets a lot of screentime, with the film insistently cutting back to show him back in Maryland, grousing and snarling as Harriet establishes herself with the leading abolitionists in Philadelphia, and for a while this seems like an unaccountably terrible mistake of screenwriting. Jumping back to Gideon so often pulls focus from Harriet in a manner that simply doesn't work if this is a by-the-books biopic; but that's exactly how we can tell this isn't a by-the-books biopic. Look at it again, and this becomes the parallel story of mutual antagonists, sketched out as mythically good and mythically bad, and the film's forward momentum is all about sending those two characters on the road to their final showdown in a sun-dappled wood. So, again, the stuff of a Western, and kudos to the filmmakers for landing on this unusual approach to telling the true story of a real-life hero: it's satisfying and watchable in a way that most biopics simply aren't.

The screenplay still has some issues, mostly in the form of its generally poor dialogue (it might avoid the structural problem of a biopic, but Harriet is powerless in the face of Biopic Dialogue, with characters baldly declaring how they fit into the History happening all around them; the film also just barely avoids a "hello escaped slave and celebrated author Frederick Douglass, how are you doing?" moment by the skin of its teeth), and its confusing relationship to time. The main plot of the film covers nine years, but only one jump of a single year is clearly indicated, and the film's third quarter notably shifts into "then all this stuff happened" without letting us figure out why, or when, or in what order. But given how easy it is to imagine a worse version of this material (how could it not be, when we get several examples every single year?), these missteps are at least easy to overlook.

Beyond being written like an actual movie, it's filmed like one. Lemmons, who directs in addition to writing, was responsible for Eve's Bayou over two decades ago, and ever since then I've rooted for her; she's got an interesting sense of how to position characters within spaces and relative to the camera, and this skill serves her well in Harriet. The film doesn't have a particularly showy style, except in the high-contrast, blue-toned scenes representing Harriet's apparently heaven-sent psychic visions (not one of the things the film invents, incidentally. It sounds ridiculous, but Lemmons has done a good job of pulling the visions into the film and making them seem more like abstract intuitions rather than fully-formed flash-forwards), and John Toll's characteristically fine exterior cinematography, using natural sunlight to create landscapes that feel more real than paintings and more historically distant than pure realism. But it does have a fairly rigorous use of medium-close shot scales to keep Erivo at the film's forefront without it being obvious that's what's going on; as she moves through fields and into unfamiliar rooms, we're moving with her, looking more at her reactions than the environment. This is an approach that well suits Erivo's performance, which is pretty terrific within the hard limits that the dialogue places on her; she's doing a tremendous amount of acting with her forehead and eyes, always remaining observant and thoughtful even in the moments when she's not necessarily meant to be on alert. Her Harriet is a conspicuous thinker, not just a doer, and this results in several marvelous small moments littered throughout the movie. My favorite is when Harriet prepares to set foot across the state line that represents her freedom, and she offers a lopsided smile to the man who has accompanied her to that point that suggests both that she's happier than she's willing to let on (and happier than she knows what to do with), and also keenly aware that there is a lot more to being free and safe than simply standing in Pennsylvania.

It's a rich performance of a character who could easily descend into nobly heroic boilerplate. And who does so descend, every so often, but less than one might think, and definitely less than one might fear. Harriet isn't apparently avoiding hagiography deliberately, but it still manages to stay away from it for the most part, letting its history lesson rise up through the drama; if it is a message movie, it's because the message was part of the characters' own lives, not because the characters have been marshaled into providing a message. And because of this, it's all the better as a tribute to Harriet Tubman: turns out that it's more effective to claim that we should care about a historical figure because she's interesting than because she's important. Who'd have thought?