THE REPORT – movie review

Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Scott Z. Burns
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Jon Hamm, Linda Powell, John Rothman
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 11/7/19
Opens: November 15, 2019. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video November 29, 2019

The Report Movie Poster

The title, which has a cute redaction of the middle word (hint: the word is “torture”), covers the antics over several years during the current century of CIA operatives assigned to get confessions and information from alleged terrorists. The agency wants especially to find out the dates and times and locations of the next attack. The goal is prevent another 9/11, the only foreign attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor.

The Senate investigation committee under Dianne Feinstein (Annete Bening), who relies on special investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), seeks to know two things. 1) Are the CIA interrogators of suspected terrorists using methods that are immoral, that go against America’s stated traditional values? 2) More important, are the interrogators getting valid information that could lead to the capture of terror leaders like Osama bin Laden and could allow the U.S. to thwart future attacks within the United States? The answer, as known now by anybody with the slightest interest in following politics, is “yes” to the first, and a resounding “no” to the second question.

This is a serious movie, one with nary a smidgen of humor. It is needed to educate the public, now regularly taken for a ride by the White House which pretends it is acting in the interests of the people, but it is likely that the core audience will already be familiar with just about everything that emerges. Though “The Report” is a dramatization, which is usually the kind of treatment that is more exciting and hard-hitting than a documentary, just think of what Michael Moore could have done with this kind of subject matter.

There is limited archival film, briefly showing waterboarding, involving throwing a towels around the face of a prisoner and pouring water through the towel giving the suspected terrorist not just the feeling of drowning but actually drowning himself. Another brief shot of rectal hydration that could have you swear off enemas forever features a prisoner on his back, water thrust as threw a fire hose into his anus. Yet another hapless victim is naked, hanging by a wall, while other individuals are being sleep-deprived thanks to heavy metal blasted into the room more loudly than anything you have ever heard in the multiplex.

Writer-director Scott Z. Burns has supplied us with more entertaining scripts, principally “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Informant!” but also had produced “An Inconvenient Truth,” which bears at least tangential similarities to “The Report” in advising about global warming and environmental dangers. Anchoring the role of investigator under Senator Dianne Feinstein looking into the secret goings-on of the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation (a euphemism for torture), Driver’s character, Daniel Jones, works tirelessly for several years putting his nose into buried secrets that in a spy movie would lead to his assassination.

Annette Bening is dolled up to look at least a passable variation of Senator Feinstein, never going overboard with emotions, contrasted against Adam Driver’s barely controlled rage that might make you think that real fireworks will start from him that will turn this into an action thriller.

Ultimately a tells-all report of almost seven thousand pages clears a Senate committee, most Republicans voting to keep it secret and even suggesting that a mere leak of this damning information would be treasonous. Perhaps those of us who believe Edward Snowden to be a hero would be most in favor of releasing the full report without redactions, while those who condemn Snowden might like the nefarious CIA activities to remain secret.

“The (partially redacted) Official Senate Report on CIA Torture” can be had by anyone for $12.99 on Amazon, the company that is now distributing the film. Additionally you can watch the movie on Amazon Prime Video beginning November 29.

118 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

HONEY BOY – movie review

Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Alma Har’el
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA twigs
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 10/17/19
Opens: November 8, 2019

Noah Jupe in Honey Boy (2019)

Thematically “Honey Boy” is focused about the kind of father played by James Lort (Shia LaBeouf) in the way he treats his twelve-year-old son Otis Lort (Noah Jupe). He beats him in one caustic scene, but on the other hand he is a loving fellow in those moments when he acts like a real dad. While you wish he would treat the young lad in a kinder fashion, the way you’d expect in a family like the one in “Leave It to Beaver,” he is still an active person, taking an active interest in the goings on of the boy. So many fathers these days are either passive, too laid-back to give firm support to their little ones, or even worse, they disappear, sometimes for good, other times when on alcoholic binges. This kid on the cusp of adolescence is so cute, really adorable, truly looking for more kindness from James that you wonder how anybody could treat him badly. What’s more, he may be too cute for the father, who has a low-paying job clearing highway trash on the outskirts of L.A., because the boy is actually the breadwinner. He is a child actor preparing for a screen shot in Vancouver, making the father envious of the kid’s talent while at the same time he is so humiliated by being supported by little Otis that in one scene he breaks down and cries.

The script is written by Shia LaBeouf as the principal actor, inspired by the actor’s own childhood, his own feelings about his treatment a couple of decades earlier. The gimmick is that LaBeouf is now playing his father! LaBeouf’s son is played also at the age of twenty-two by Lucas Hedges, his magnificent hair shorn into a crew cut. He is still acting, and in fact the story begins with a bang, as Otis is seen beside a crashed plane, an explosion throwing him back twenty feet in a scene from a “Terminator”-type movie. To an extent, because of his upbringing, the older Otis is a troubled man. After a car crash, Otis, playing out the actual car accident that LaBeouf caused during a drunk driving accident in 2008, is injured in a car crash which lands him in rehab.

The scenes involving the younger boy are the more interesting ones, as we see a child who is coming of age, who continues to film movies while escorted around the set by his dad. One wonders why they’re living in a shabby Motel 6 type of residence given the money that the child is bringing in, surrounded by misfits, one of whom, played by FKA Twigs cuddles with the twelve-year-old in what may or may not be a completed sexual encounter. If the kid is losing his virginity, he is also losing the innocence of childhood by smoking, his father handing him the butts, encouraging his unhealthy habit.

Alma Har’el, the Israeli-born music video and film director, is perhaps best known for her “Bombay Beach,” which won top prize at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. That pic deals with three troubled people in a poor community in Southern California, which bears comparison with her current fare. But “Honey Boy” is too loosely constructed with the usual stereotypical life around rehab to be as involving as her earlier contribution.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B-

JUST MERCY – movie review

Warner Bros
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 11/2/19
Opens: December 25, 2019

Just Mercy (2019)

Freeing wrongfully convicted people is an excellent theme for fiction as well as for documentaries. Think of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Guardians,” in which Quincy Miller, a black man, is convicted of a murder that has no witnesses and no apparent motive. Languishing in jail for 21 years, he has his case picked up by Collen Post of the Guardian organization, which can accept only a small percentage of cases that come to its attention. There are people who don’t want Miller freed: his lawyer’s life is in danger. In Ton Shadyac’s movie “Brian Banks,” a football star is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and is later freed thanks to Justin Brooks of the Florida Innocence Project.

In time for Christmas, a season of good feelings by people who want feel-good movies, “Just Mercy” enters the genre, a film by Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton following up his “The Glass Castle,” about a young woman brought up by unconventional parents, often living in poverty, whose folks now criticize her for marrying a financial analyst in New York thereby trashing their values. While “The Glass Castle” is not about the judicial system, its theme embraces the idea of giving up a conventional life, one that everyone expects you to pursue, in favor of helping the people who need you the most—the post, the disenfranchised, the wrongfully convicted.

The most surprising thing about Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” is that it is based closely on an actual case. As the plot rolls out, you might scarcely believe that a guy fresh out of law school, albeit Harvard, without prior experience and with a view that the impossible takes just a little longer, succeeds in winning a case full of obstacles. The principal obstacle is the desire of an Alabama town sheriff (filmed in Georgia) and young D.A. to hold on to their reputations, which depends on keeping the town safe. That’s safe for the white folks on the right side of the track, since for African-Americans there never is a feeling of safety from an oppressive local and state government and hostile townspeople.

The fall-guy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) enjoys what could have been his last day of freedom, felling a tree and being arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white girl. Though he has a strong alibi, it is backed up only by the local black community. A white felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), is promised a lighter sentence if he testifies against McMillian, who perjures himself leading to a conviction (I just corrected a typo, the more adept “confiction”). Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), out of Harvard Law School, heading from a lucrative career in Delaware but choosing instead to drive south to defend hapless people who may have been wrongfully jailed. He is lucky to get out alive, drawing hostile stares from the white community and especially its lawmen, even strip-searched before the first conference with his client. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), his white paralegal who sets him up in her home pending the rental of an office,

McMillian who at first does not trust that this young man can do anything for him but soon shakes his hand in agreement. Stevenson moves for a re-trial but is buffeted by the establishment until he winds his way through the judicial process to get just mercy.

Some of the interesting side lines include the conversations that McMillian has on death row with his neighbors, all in solitary confinement. The most stellar scene in the work finds Stevenson interviewing Ralph Myers to get an admission that he lied when he accused McMillian of standing over the body of the dead girl. Tim Blake Nelson, his bottom lip twisted to the side as though a victim of a stroke, his eyes blinking, head swiveling, turns in what in my mind should make him a candidate for best supporting role awards.

For those who have never seen this type of courtroom drama, never exposed to “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Conviction” with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” based on a Stephen King novel, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” will be particularly riveted by this intense drama. An older audience might challenge this movie’s value on the grounds that it’s a straightforward biopic in strict chronology, those people wanting more free-floating imagination in their courtroom dramas. Nevertheless, for all potential audiences, “Just Mercy,” given its fiercely motivated performances, is a delight, a Christmas feel-good drama which even at over two hours does not overstay its welcome.

136 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B_
Overall – B+

CLEMENCY – movie review

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chinonye Chukwu
Screenwriter: Chinonye Chukwu
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce, Danielle Brooks
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 11/1/19
Opens: December 27, 2019


Someone says to you “It’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies!” You’re probably thinking, oh, it’s going to be one of those like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” maybe “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” But no. He suggests one opening right in the middle of Christmas week that will swing into the new year about a conflicted woman working in a prison with a flourishing death row. OK, then. You’re in, but only because you heard that Alfre Woodard is in the major role in what many will consider the best performance of her illustrious career. That might be difficult to image considering the dynamic jobs she has done with “Burning Sands” as a professor in a college with a tragic hazing incident, or as the narrator in “Nat Turner,” maybe in one of her many TV performances like “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Steel Magnolias” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Few actors this year have expressed their fictional job conflicts like Woodard in “Clemency,” a film by Chinonye Chukwu in her sophomore feature, a woman whose debut directing was of “alaskaLand” –about an estranged Nigerian brother and sister forced to reconnect in their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.

“Clemency” is bookended by scenes of almost unbearable tension: opening as Woodard’s character, Warned Bernadine Williams, deals with the botched execution of a Hispanic man—who undergoes the strapping into the gurney as though paralyzed rather than the expected screaming and crying—but who will let loose after the prison staff has difficulty finding a proper vein in his arm or leg. As “Clemency” concludes, Bernadine walks down the hall lost in thought about her entire career, wondering whether it’s worth continuing to be a martinet who refuses to bend past a single rule, but at the same time finding a connection to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) who is scheduled to die for killing a police officer during a robbery fifteen years back.

We know more about the warden by scenes in her home where her husband Jonathan Williams (Wendell Pierce), a teacher, is getting increasingly fed up with her distance from him, her insomnia, her nightmares, her protestations that she does not want to be touched. On the professional level, she spends time with her deputy warden drinking in bars, then reluctantly handing him her keys when he insists on driving her home. Her job requires her to deal with Woods’s lawyer, Mary Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who is burned out from a thirty-year career trying to save condemned prisoners and announceing that he will retire after the case against Woods is finally adjudicated.

We don’t know whether Bernadine is pro- or anti-capital punishment. She hides her views but in her contacts with the condemned Woods, she conveys the impression that she has spent enough time on her job and that she might prefer to ask for a transfer to a prison where the death penalty is not carried out. As a whole, writer-director Chukwu, the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at last January’s Sundance Festival, leaves it up to us in the audience to interpret her views on the death penalty.

There is virtually no music on the soundtrack, a condition that many a film should try to duplicate to avoid annoying intrusions into dialogue. Here ambiance reigns supreme in a drama you should feel free to attend unless you prefer the more melodramatic cases as shown in “Pierrepont: The Last Hangman” based on the life and times of Albert Pierrepont who slipped a rope around hundreds of necks until he burned out, and “I Want to Live!” starring Susan Hayward as a habitual criminal facing execution. Happy Christmas viewing!

113 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

SEFARAD – movie review

Veranda Entertainment
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Luís Ismael
Script History: Research Center of the Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal
Cast: Rodrigo Santos, Pedro Galiza, Ana Vargas, Gabriela Relvas, Jorge Fernandes, Rui Spranger, Pedro Frias, José Neto
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, November 1, 2019
Opens: December 15, 2019

Sefarad (2019)

In my neighborhood, young Hasidic men and women spend much of each Friday walking around, judging whether the people they see on the street are Jewish. It’s quite common for a fourteen-year-old pair of girls to approach a woman, and for a fifteen-year-old man to close in on a man, asking “Are you Jewish?” Anyone who replies “yes” might be taken inside a “mitvah tank” to get a tefillen wrapped around his arm, get a blessing, and be sent away with the hope that yet another secular Jewish person will come back to the fold. This is a half-hour procedure the closest thing to what Christian missionaries do around the world, but there’s a difference. Judaism is not looking to convert people of other religions, only to awaken the latent Judaism in those who are members of the tribe. This is not unlike situation taking place on a grander scale in Oporto, Portugal, a city to which Jews returned in the Nineteenth Century to form a small community, the leaders of which are determined to bring the “real” Judaism to a group of so-called Marranos, or Crypto Jews, living in semi-isolated mountainous villages.

These Marranos (an offensive term that should give way to the more neutral “Crypto Jews”) were Jews who during and after the Inquisition in Spain converted to Catholicism to avoid the fate of these landsmen who were massacred in 1391. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became outwardly Christians, but the Crypto-Jews are those who practiced Judaism in secret. When beginning in 1923 Portuguese army captain Artur Barros Basto became involved in reclaiming these mountain people who did not pray in the same way as do the Jews who never had to convert. Moreover they were not even considered Jews by some, especially by one London-based financier. Barros Basto recruits a segment of these people and brings them into a classroom where he teaches them the “real” literature, culture and rituals of Judaism. He insists that they be circumcised because, he notes, nobody can be accepted into the embrace of Israel without a small, symbolic penile cut. For this latter act Barros Basto, a hero of World War I, is tossed out of the army and becomes the Portuguese Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Luís Ismael, who directs this look at specific periods in Jewish history, is known for “Balas and Bolinos” about a gang that robs a gas station, following up with additional dramas about the leader of the gang. Not quite what we would expect from this director. Now he manages an epic story that covers five centuries in ninety minutes in a movie named Sefarad for an Iberian region where Sephardic Jews originated. Inspired by a true story of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto (1887-1961) who is portrayed here by Rodrigo Santos, this idealistic leader determines to establish a strong Jewish community in Oporto including the construction of the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in 1938, the largest on the Iberian Peninsula.

This is a story without humor, a serious drama whose director is obviously inspired by one man who performs a minor revolution by getting a synagogue financed and built and means for all Jews in Oporto, but who admits ultimately that he failed. He faces resistance from the Marranos, many of whom had no intention or desire to change their ways, leaving behind a large synagogue with too small a congregation. As a former high school teacher I found the liveliest scene to take place in a modest classroom where the teens look at each other with shock and disbelief when told that they would have to undergo the placement of a knife to the penis. Inspiring is the scene of the captain as the stereotypical man on horseback, trudging through the tiny, mountainous villages and addressing the residents as if to say “Are you Jewish?” Rodrigo Santos anchors the film, speaking in fluent Portugese and English, relying on the help of his right-hand man Menasseh Ben Dov (Pedro Galiza) who will ultimately leave Portugal for what was then called Palestine.

The actors can sometimes deliver their lines too stiffly, particularly those playing British financiers with disagreements about recognizing Crypto-Jews as Jews (with good reason as many continue to attend Catholic church services), and much of the dialogue is didactic as though it were being presented to a middle school classroom. Despite these reservations, we should welcome “Sefarad” as a look at clash between Marranos culture, as these converted Jews over the centuries may have forgotten everything about the religion or, if they retained it would practice in a different way from those who never had to convert. Interestingly Barros Basto had thought of himself as a Catholic until his dying grandfather confessed to Jewish family origins. He converted to Judaism, was circumcised in Tangier, and changed his name to Abraham Israel Ben Rosh. His own converso story was passed over too lightly in the film.

In Portuguese, English and Hebrew.

90 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B-
Technical – B
Overall – B


Warner Bros Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Edward Norton
Screenwriter: Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Bobby Canavale, Dallas Roberts
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 10/12/19
Opens: November 1, 2019

I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life, the only living fellow my age who has loved the borough enough never to move. During the 1950s when I came of age and didn’t particularly follow politics as I do now when it’s as entertaining as any Broadway tragedy, I had the name Robert Moses imbedded in my memory. All I heard was that he did this and he did that; that he headed a dozen government bureaus and, while never elected, had more power than even the New York mayor or governor. He was honored to have bridges and parks named after him not only in Gotham but throughout New York State. His is a major role in “Motherless Brooklyn,” considered by Warner Bros to be a contender for end-year awards. Thinly disguised as the character Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), he would probably be considered by the movie’s audience a stand-in for today’s Trump, although Robert Moses died in 1981. And you can consider the parallel that Moses Randolph is played by Baldwin, one of the most popular guests on Saturday Night Live given his caricatures of our president. But I never knew that his character was a racist and an elitist who did not care for minorities or for poor people, that he contributed his talent to keep African-Americans out of New York by building overpasses that were a foot too short for buses. In fact he considered cars to be a pleasure vehicle for the elite and did not care that they are used today for business.

In any case, his role stands out in a picture by Edward Norton in which the celebrated actor serves not only as a thesp but as the film’s writer and director. Too bad, though, that this overlong picture (close to two and one-half hours and easily edited down had Norton wished) is convoluted, and requiring at least an extra viewing for understanding, which makes it a good choice for the DVD or the streaming services when they inevitably come out.

Using Jonathan Lathem’s novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Awards and is available at Amazon for under a sawbuck, Norton changed the 1990 setting to 1957, in a Brooklyn whose cars could make you think that you’re in Cuba. Norton stars as a gumshoe, a private eye, who could never have been assigned to the police force because he had Tourette’s Syndrome, which afflicts him with uncontrollable tics both bodily and through speech. He would make odd noises, and only occasionally a taboo word like “tits” escapes from his mouth. His name is Lionel Essrog but as an orphan in his outer borough he acquired the nickname Brooklyn. At one point he is ejected from a Harlem jazz club. The rest of the time he gets slammed around a lot, so you’d think he’s on to something big. And he is.

Working in a shabby office with Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Gil (Ethan Suplee), Danny (Dallas Roberts) and Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) he is upset when Frank, his best friend, is shot by a group of goons. This becomes the first plot point that’s difficult to figure out. So Motherless is determined to get to the bottom of things, discovering that African-Americans are highly critical of Moses Randolph’s plan to eject them from their homes in order to build highways—which Randolph pretties up by calling them slum clearance. Befriending Laura Rose (Gugu Mabatha-Raw), he finds that she is a lawyer concerned with the fate of her community. She clues Lionel in to the Moses Randolph plans and takes him to a Harlem jazz club where he enjoys the sounds from the trumpet of Wynton Marsalis (Michael Kenneth Williams), dubbing in the actual music of Marsalis. And he gets slammed around.

Expect to get tired of the tics. You’ll think, OK, Lionel, you made your point so you don’t have to let us keep seeing how the outside world thinks that you’re either amusing or nuts. More important you may wind up unclear about why Lionel’s idol, Frank Minna, is shot by people with whom he is negotiating. Further you watch the theme of brotherly hate as Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), the builder’s brother who has with him more than simply sibling rivalry, but his passion is over the top. Cherry Jones turns in a brief look at Gabby Horowitz, a community leader opposing Moses Randolph and perhaps a stand-in for Bella Abzug. And the entire design including a look at a huge Penn Station set up as it looked in the fifties is grand. If this film does not try your patience, you’re the type of person whose hunger is for watching “Chinatown” again and again.

144 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – D
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+

HARRIET – movie review

Focus Features
Reviewed for & 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

Harriet Movie Poster (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+