Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriter: Gregory Ellen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters
Screened at: Bryant Park, NYC, 9/11/19
Opens: November 1, 2019
You’ve got to hand it to Canada. They have nationwide government health coverage just like the countries of Western Europe. They welcomed Americans who did not want to serve in the immoral war with Vietnam. They welcome immigrants even now! Even Ivanka has been seen checking out their Prime Minister. And they provided a safe haven for enslaved people in the U.S. who were able to travel, say, the 600 miles from Maryland to the Canadian border, some by boat from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where many settled and found jobs. O Canada: can you take us in today when we need you so badly?
Hundreds of thousands of people in the early 19th century would have flocked to you, O Canada, to escape their status as property, where some of the opposition refused even to consider each to be 3/5 of a person. Otherwise a slave was considered property, and Harriet Tubman wanted none of that for herself, her family, her friends, and provided the energy and spark for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. After seeing “Harriet,” you will not wonder why President Obama proposed her image on the $20 bill. You can probably forget that for now, since Trump is a big admirer of Old Hickory, even visiting his grave. But he would “love” to see Tubman’s face on another denomination, like the $2 bill. Yes, he really said that, which is to his credit. After all, he could have suggested the $3 bill. Which gets us back to Araminta Ross, called “Minty” by the slave owners in Dorchester County, Maryland. She had been thrashed by some of the farm owners under the direction of the handsome but villainous Gideon (Joe Alwyn), who took over the family estate after the death of his mean father, and may have been responsible for particular thrashings that injured Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) in the head, causing pain and dizziness and a series of seizures that caused her to dream, to hallucinate, and as an already devout Christian to hear messages from God. Cultural appropriation of Joan of Arc?
When she is not acting, Director Kasi Lemmons has a long c.v. of TV serials, her film direction including “Eve’s Bayou,” which relates just what happens when a woman witnesses her father’s having an affair. The “Harriet” screenplay, which she co-wrote with Gregory Ellen Howard (“Remember the Titans” about a newly assigned African-American coach), plays out events in chronological order, with some hallucinations and dreams serving as an intermittent backdrop to a colorful biopic.
Determined to breathe free, she runs away from the farm that owns her chased by three bloodhounds, depending on her two legs to carry her but getting the help of a sympathetic white man in his covered wagon. She reaches Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania where she connects with an anti-slavery society under the direction of William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and is eventually given room and board in a hotel owned by Marie (Janelle Monáe), a sophisticated African-American who not only accepts Harriet but also takes in several members of her family whom she picked when Harriet—get this—returned from freedom, going back to the slave state of Maryland several times to pick up others.
“Harriet” is peppered with monologues form the title character, who invokes God’s communications with her, with dialogues among farmers who want Gideon’s family to pay them since Gideon’s slave has been taking them away to freedom, with tete-a-tetes especially between Harriet and Marie. But also there is considerable melodrama each time the dogs are sent to sniff out her path and one climactic face-off between good and evil: between Harriet and Gideon. Limiting herself to 125 minutes, Lemmons does not continue with Tubman’s working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse and later—as if she needs to do another miracle to attain an informal sainthood—with guiding a raid at Combahee Ferry which liberated 700 enslaved people. And she became the first woman to lead an armed expedition of men in the Civil War. She found time later in life to lobby for women suffrage.
Harriet Tubman must be grinning widely in her grave at Auburn, New York where she died in 1913, as this is a handsome movie that shows her in such a positive light that she appears to have not a single human flaw. For her part, look for Cynthia Erivo’s nominations by a host of awards groups including the Academy and even New York Film Critics Online.
125 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+