Sometimes it’s hard to conceive of awe-inspiring historical figures like abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman as living, breathing people. But a single visual cue can make a difference: a recently discovered photograph shows a younger Tubman, a contemplative, vibrant-looking woman in a stylish dress. That’s the Tubman director Kasi Lemmons brings to life in her carefully observed biographical film Harriet: it’s as if Tubman walks among us, melting away the years between her life and ours.
Cynthia Erivo plays Tubman, whom we first meet as a slave–her birth name is Araminta Ross–on a farm in Bucktown, Md., circa 1849. She’s married to a free black man and yearns for freedom herself, at least partly to escape the sinister advances of her master’s son (an oily Joe Alwyn). Araminta pulls off a daring escape, even leaping from a bridge when she finds herself cornered by the dogs and men on horseback who are quite literally hunting her. She makes her way, at great risk, to Philadelphia, building a new life for herself with the help of a sophisticated businesswoman and adviser (played, with glittering vitality, by Janelle Monáe). But the woman who now calls herself Harriet Tubman can’t forget those she left behind. She returns again and again to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, often in disguise, to guide other slaves to freedom. The dangers increase with each trip.
Lemmons–who has directed some splendid pictures over the years, among them Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine–is fully alive to both the danger and beauty of the landscape of the American South–even the shape of a tree, craggy and twisted or lush with leaves, could be either a warning or a welcome. Erivo shines through it all, giving us a glimpse into the mind of a steadfast woman of purpose. Her Tubman is as bold and alive as the woman staring at us from that photograph. The directness of her gaze is the ultimate challenge.
Harriet opens in theaters Nov. 1
This appears in the November 11, 2019 issue of TIME.