Monday, November 18, 2019

Movie Review: Harriet

Harriet *** ½ / ***** 
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons.
Written by: Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons.
Starring: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet Tubman), Leslie Odom Jr. (William Still), Janelle Monáe (Marie), Joe Alwyn (Gideon), Jennifer Nettles (Eliza), Tim Guinee (Thomas Garrett), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Rit Ross), Clarke Peters (Ben Ross), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Reverend Green), Deborah Ayorinde (Rachel Ross), Claire Bronson (Rachel Garrett), Tory Kittles (Frederick Douglass), Omar J. Dorsey (Bigger Long), Mitchell Hoog (Vince), Zackary Momoh (John Tubman), Henry Hunter Hall (Walter).
Given that Hollywood seems to love to make biopics – so many biopics – it is remarkable, and rather sad, that they have never seen fit to give Harriet Tubman a biopic before 2019. The legendary freedom fighter – who escaped herself from slavery in Maryland in 1849, and then returned, at great risk to herself, again and again to slave country to free more and more slaves, becoming the most famous, and successful conductor on the Underground Railroad. When they passed the Fugitive Slave Act – basically meaning slaves weren’t even free if they could it make, now they had to make it all the way to Canada, she kept on fighting. Hell, as the end titles makes clear, the events covered in this film are only the tip of the iceberg to what an amazing life Harriet Tubman lived – and just how custom made it seems to be for a rousing, action packed biopic.
Thanks to Kasi Lemmons, we finally have a biopic for Tubman – and if it’s a little square and conventional, it’s also solid and rousing. Watching the film, you kind of wish that they had decided to make a miniseries on the life of Tubman rather than a two-hour movie. There is clearly enough material just in this movie that could have been expanded to a much larger runtime, a much deeper film – and that still doesn’t even touch on her actions during the Civil War, etc. This is especially true since the filmmaking her is solid – without ever when quite reaching rousing heights. In addition, when you have to cram all this into just over two hours, you inevitably end up making slavery seem more like an issue of individual bad actors (in this case personified by Joe Alwyn’s Gideon) – rather than a massive, system very hard to change direction.
The film is rather straight forward in terms of its structure. It spends only a small amount of time with Harriet – then called Minty – as a slave in Maryland, before she decides that he has to escape – if she doesn’t, she’s going to get sold down South, just like her sisters never to be heard from again. Even though she has “spells” – she escapes single handedly – making her way to freedom in Philadelphia. It’s there that she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), from the Anti-Slavery League, and gets set up with a paying job, and a place to live in a boarding house owned by Marie (Janelle Monae) – a woman who was born free. But Harriet cannot just stay there and live her life – she wants her husband, she wants her family with her. And so she goes back – again and again and again, and keeps getting more and more people out. She becomes a legend in the Underground Railroad circles, and becomes a legend known as “Moses” in slave owner circles.
As Tubman, Cynthia Erivo is the one element of the movie that is truly great. She exudes confidence and bravery – a woman who is scared, but doesn’t act like it. The film does address Harriet’s unique beliefs – her spells that she interprets as messages from God. Erivo, the talented Broadway actress who was also great in two films last year – Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale – is a star in the making, and this performance shows just how great she can be.
The film was directed by Kasi Lemmons – who has never quite made a film as great as her remarkable debut, Eve’s Bayou (1997) – although, the realities of the movie industry have limited her opportunities. If nothing else, Harriet is her biggest production to date – a large scale historical biopic, with many characters and an historical sweep that she hasn’t done before. If nothing else, she shows that she can keep everything under control. The storytelling here is rather run of the mill, but still strong. The filmmaking is the same – a few striking images, but mainly rather by the numbers. The film never quite reaches the rousing heights that it could. It also makes the conscious decision to not get as brutal as something like 12 Years a Slave in its depiction of slavery. This film does feel like it was tailor made for high school history classes – and at least its better than most of those.
Harriet Tubman deserves her story to be told – she deserves to be on the $20 bill. As a first attempt to tell her story, Harriet is fine. Erivo is great, and everything else in the movie is solid. This film is long overdue – and honestly, does kind of feel like something made 20-30 years ago. That isn’t entirely bad – but there’s more here.

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