HARRIET – movie review

Focus Features
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

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+

VAZANTE – movie review


Music Box Films
Director:  Daniela Thomas
Screenwriter:  Daniela Thomas, Beto Amaral
Cast:  Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Sandra Corveloni, Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/6/18
Opens: January 12, 2018

Vazante  Poster

1821 was a very good year—if you were King George IV of England—but not if you were born or shipped to Brazil as a slave.  If you resent the patriarchy in America, the behavior of white males in important positions, be thankful that you do not have to undergo the humiliation of enslaved people in the mining areas of Brazil, a country that imported more slaves via Luanda than any other state in the Western Hemisphere.  Forty percent of all such unfortunate people sent to our hemisphere went to Brazil, where slavery was the peculiar institution even before the Portuguese traveled to the New World.  Brazilians must have liked the institution: they were the last to emancipate all, in 1888.

“Vazante,” or “The Surge” tells the story of one family, folks of all ages, living in a shack that looks nothing like the plantations you’ve seen in “Gone With the Wind,” but still, if you owned the place and you possessed a dozen slaves to work the mines or do some planting, you did some heavy work.  Maybe you moved some cattle from place to place, riding a horse like an Argentine gaucho or relaxing in a hammock on your porch, ordering the African women to bring you not mint juleps but perhaps cachaça, the national drink.

“Vazante” is quite an impressive job from director Daniela Thomas, a Carioca who presumably lives better than even the owner of this dilapidated plantation in the Diamantina Moutains.  As in antebellum America, the owner of these people who are often chained, marching as a team from the field or tied to trees to “break” them, could have his way with the women, and as shown in one quick scene, with the young African boys as well.  Though filmed by Inti Briones in black and white, the rugged beauty of the area is apparent, the absence of color accentuating the primitive lives of the people far away from what would become Ipanema Beach.

The stage is set for drama when Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), the owner of the farmhouse seen leading a group of fresh slaves and oxen, learns that his wife has died in childbirth as well as the baby.  He is now not only a widower but the son of a senile mother-in-law (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha), who gazes about listlessly, occasionally shoveling gruel into her mouth.  One slave (Toumani Kouyate), who gives the movie audience the impression that he will lead a Nat Turner-style rebellion, speaks a different language.  His inability to communicate fills him with a rage that a freed African, Jeremias (Fabricio Boliveira), both an Uncle Tom and a Simon Legree, insists that he can handle.  Jeremias is valuable as well as he knows how to plant, a necessity for raising money when the diamond mines have dried up.

Antonio takes Beatriz (Luana Nastas), daughter of his brother-in-law (Roberto Audio), in marriage, a 12-year-old with whom he does not consummate his marriage until she has her menses.  Otherwise, he’s no Mr. Right.  He gets off with Feliciana (Jai Baptista), as masters had been wont to do with the enslaved.  For her part, Beatriz hangs out with Feliciana’s son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), a choice that will lead this slow-paced, reasonably quiet story to burst into frightful melodrama.

With the help of co-scripter Beto Amaral, Ms. Thomas has no problem challenging the probable art-house crowd to keep patient, given the long takes and the occasional, dramatic close-up.  Though I haven’t been anywhere in Brazil in 1821, I would bet that the scene is as authentic as you can get, probably backed up by the counsel of historians impressed by the 17th century discovery of emeralds, gold and diamonds in Minas Gervais.  This led to a rush of Portuguese to colonize that vast land.  As a film “Vazante” is a gem in itself, graced with serious performances albeit without the usual infusion of humor that filmmakers throw in for comic relief.  Life looks hard, whether you’re a gaucho of an enslaved person.  Aren’t we lucky all that baggage is now gone and Brazil is, like the U.S., a land of a multi-cultural population?  Some political scientists have even praised the concept of Brazil’s “coffee-colored compromise” as a solution to racial hostility, an interesting label especially considering that, as Frank Sinatra told us, “They have an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”

Unrated.  116 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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