Thursday, October 31, 2019


Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, there has been no major film about Harriet Tubman until now; Kasi Lemmons' (Eve's Bayou) new film comes riddled with great anticipation and expectations. For those looking for a complex portrait of this symbolic pillar of American history, whose life is still opaque and underappreciated by many (even to get her on the twenty dollar bill in recent times has been met with ridiculous opposition), will not be completely fulfilled. However, the movie is slick and involving--thanks to its brisk pace, handsome photography (by John Toll, who established the look of the historical epic of the mid-1990s with his Oscar-winning work on both Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), and a graceful, centerpiece turn from Cynthia Erivo.

Harriet mainly focuses upon Tubman's first escape from slavery and her subsequent trips back to lead over seventy slaves to freedom. She is often hit with bouts of spiritual "visions" which guide her throughout her courageous quests. These visions are lensed with a bluish tint--a chaotic, quick-flitted rendering of abuse in chattel. I was reminded of the snowy, bird-swept prophetic visions in well water in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain--a subversive nod, if it is indeed a reference here. What makes Lemmons' film compelling (and somewhat subversive) is that it seems molded after white male hero historical action dramas that have been churned out from the Hollywood machine for decades. The captivating Erivo, defies the odds pitted against her--including slave owner Gideon (Joe Alwyn)-- and rises to occasion. Despite the movie's rousing surface narrative, there is also the complexity of her life in Philadelphia with abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a stinging undercurrent in her friendship with her elegant, born-free house mother Marie (Janelle Monáe).

After my screening, someone shouted "be blessed all." Someone laughed and said, "you too." Even if the film leans heavily into faith-based appeal, I guess there could be worse notes to leave on in these times. Outside, a mother and her young daughter took a selfie in front of the poster--an image of Harriet, with her cocked hat and rifle--that has been buried in history books and popular imagination in favor for the older, regal Tubman in her later years. The mother and daughter smiled and walked away into our current moment. A film can't capture everything in history but when it skims a surface that wants to make you want to explore deeper, there is a value there. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

For further reading, I appreciated this Vanity Fair article from K. Austin Collins which has a unique perspective compared to many critical reviews I've read and why it's more mysterious, runs deep: "... there’s a tension at work in Harriet that’s missing from other, 'better' movies. Sometimes, Lemmons—who directed the wonderfully spectral Southern gothic Eve’s Bayou—hits you with a curious bit of framing or a propulsive bit of energy, visions of a world that’s as alive with danger as it is with spiritual possibility. It’s also a vaster and in many ways wilder film than it will get credit for, a movie that leans into the excitement of Tubman’s mission so energetically it almost morphs into a heist picture, dredging up odd romantic and religious energies along the way."

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