HARRIET (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, there has never before been a feature film profiling Harriet Tubman. Given her remarkable accomplishments and historic standing as an iconic American hero, we should all agree that it’s high time. The film plays as a passion project for writer-director Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU, 1997) and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (REMEMBER THE TITANS, 2000). Cinematically speaking, it’s a fairly formulaic biopic; however, from a historical perspective, HARRIET is story that was due to be told.

Cynthia Erivo (WIDOWS, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE) stars as Araminta Ross, known as Minty. She was born into slavery, and the film picks up in 1849 Maryland when she is being sold ‘down south’ by her heartless owner Gideon Brodess (an understated Joe Alwyn, THE FAVOURITE). Rather than be separated from her family, Minty runs (she does a lot of running). She runs until cornered, and then leaps from a bridge into rushing water. It’s only after her treacherous 100 mile walk to Pennsylvania that she becomes a free woman and changes her name to Harriet Tubman – in honor of her mother and husband.

She receives help along the way. Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) plays a recurring role in her escape and later rescues. Once in Pennsylvania, she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017), who runs the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and introduces her to fellow abolitionist Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Ms. Buchanan is a free black woman, as elegant in her manner as she is dedicated to the cause … and she’s worthy of her own story.

Harriet decides she must go back and rescue her family. She is told the trip is foolish and too risky – which doesn’t stop her from making 13 trips and saving 70 slaves. We learn of her work with the Underground Railroad – not a train, but rather a secretive organization committed to helping slaves escape to freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harriet’s work becomes even more difficult, as she must guide the slaves all the way to Canada. Omar J Dorsey plays Bigger Long, an expert slave hunter – yes, that’s an actual occupation – hired by Harriet’s owner to capture her. When Harriet converts Walter the scout (Henry Hunter Hall), the colorful character becomes a valuable ally and strong believer.

As a young girl, Minty/Harriet had her skull cracked by a slave owner whilst standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. After that, she experienced episodes, “spells” that she claimed were visions from God. The film captures quite a few of these and treats Harriet as someone “touched”. Was this the prophecy or was Harriet an extraordinarily resourceful and tenacious woman? The message of God is present throughout, and it’s difficult to not view this as unintentionally taking a chip out of what Harriet accomplished.

Slave owners were baffled by the rescues conducted by this mythic figure they named “Moses”. Of course, they assumed it was a man, and once Harriet’s identity was exposed, her former owner was held accountable by other slave owners. It’s at that point where Gideon Brodess’ mother Eliza makes one of the most cold-hearted, racist speeches we’ve seen on film. Eliza is played by Jennifer Nettles, the singer for C&W band Sugarland. In 1858, Harriet crosses paths with abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglas, and delivers an impassioned speech of her own in the presence of Senator William Seward (one of Booth’s targets in the Lincoln assassination). Harriet assisted Brown with recruitment for his raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1863, Harriet led the Comahee River Raid, which resulted in 750 slaves being set free.

The film might be a bit slick, but the acting is top notch, and Harriet’s story is remarkable. Director Lemmons forgoes the brutality of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and tries to cover Harriet’s time as a slave, her first escape off the bridge, and her continued work freeing other slaves. Harriet went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union, and later a respected elder who worked for women’s voting rights and to make latter life a bit easier for former slaves. It’s possible a movie was not the best format to tell Harriet’s story … a story that continued to develop until her death in 1913 at age 91 (or thereabouts). But it’s important to have her story documented in some way other than the textbooks kids likely won’t read. A film that tackles such a towering historical figure deserves a little slack.

watch the trailer:


WIDOWS (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Woman power. Black power. Racist old white men. Corrupt politicians. Abusive husbands. Cheating white husbands. Racist cops. Men are bad. Women are strong and good. If a filmmaker were to blend all of these stereotypes into a single movie, then as movie goers we should expect an ultra-talented filmmaker like Steve McQueen to go beyond conventional genre. Unfortunately, a nice twist on the heist movie formula from Lynda La Plante’s novel turns into predictability that whips us with societal clichés posing as societal insight.

I seem to be one of the few not raving about this movie. Hey it has the director behind  Best Picture Oscar winner 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Mr. McQueen),  a screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL) from the aforementioned novel by Lynda La Plante, and a deep and talented cast of popular actors. It ticks every box and it’s likely to be a crowd-pleaser, despite my disappointment. Every spot where I expected intrigue, the film instead delivered yet another eye-roll and easy-to-spot twist with a cultural lesson. Each of the actors does tremendous work, it just happens to be with material they could perform in their sleep.

It’s the kind of film where audience members talk to the screen – and it plays like that’s the desired reaction. This is the 4th generation of the source material, including 3 previous TV mini-series (1983, 1985, 2002). It makes sense that this material would be better suited to multiple episodes, rather than hurried through 2 hours. There are too many characters who get short-changed, and so little time to let the personalities breathe and grow. But this is about delivering as many messages as possible.

A strong premise is based in Chicago, and finds a team of four burglars on a job gone wrong. This leaves a mobster/politician looking to the four widows (hence the title) for reparations. Since the women have no money, their only hope is to tackle the next job their men had planned. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the widows, though only the first three are given much to do, as the talented Ms. Coon is short-changed. In fact, Ms. Davis is such a strong screen presence that she dominates every scene she is in – she’s a true powerhouse. Even Liam Neeson can’t hang with her. Colin Farrell appears as a smarmy politician and Robert Duvall is his f-word spouting former Alderman dad. Cynthia Erivo has a nice supporting turn in support of the women, and Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J O’Connor, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal fill out the deep cast … see what I mean about too many characters and too little time?

There is no single thing to point at as the cause for letdown. The story just needed to be smarter and stop trying so hard to comment on current societal ills. As an example, a quick-trigger cop shooting an innocent young African-American male seems thrown in for the sole purpose of ensuring white guilt and an emotional outburst from the audience. It’s difficult to even term this film as manipulating since we see the turns coming far in advance. Two far superior message films released earlier this year are Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN and Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. For those who need only emotion and little intellect in their movies, this not-so-thrilling heist might work. For the rest of you, it’s good eye-roll practice.

watch the trailer: