Combustible Celluloid
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With: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh, Mitchell Hoog, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Omar Dorsey, Tory Kittles, Tim Guinee
Written by: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
Running Time: 125
Date: 11/01/2019

Harriet (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Railroad Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many films depicting slavery in the history of the United States can feel punishing, lecturing. For her superb new Harriet, Kasi Lemmons has daringly taken a positive approach, inviting viewers into her narrative, rather than talking down to them. (She has said that Harriet is a "freedom" film, rather than a slavery film.) Equal parts reality and spirituality, the new film echoes Lemmons's remarkable debut feature Eve's Bayou (1997), with its voodoo vibe. Even more miraculous, Lemmons has managed to paint a portrait of a heroic historic figure, high on a pedestal, and yet make her achingly human.

Cynthia Erivo, in a powerful, legendary performance, plays Harriet Tubman, who begins the film under her slave name "Minty." She escapes, alone, and miraculously survives the 100 miles to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and joins the Underground Railroad. Missing her husband, she ventures back to him, but finds that he, thinking Harriet dead, has re-married. This blow toughens her resolve; she shoves her feelings deep down and uses her pain to work harder, going on to successfully rescue dozens of slaves. Even though she's unwavering in her work, her pain and tension are still evident. Additionally, the real Tubman suffered seizures, and Lemmons depicts these as blue-tinted visions of things to come, as if Tubman were touched by God.

Joe Alwyn plays Minty's white slave owner, evil, but truly unable to see the slaves as anything more than property. Janelle Monáe is resplendent as a free hotel owner that helps newly arrived slaves; she emerges from shadows in her first scene, and ought to create audible gasps. Lemmons's husband Vondie Curtis-Hall plays the Reverend Green, preaching subservience to slaves while whites are listening, but helping them in secret. And Henry Hunter Hall, the son of Lemmons and Curtis-Hall, makes a striking impact as Walter, a squirrelly ex-slavecatcher who becomes inspired by Harriet's work.

If that's not enough, John Toll (The Thin Red Line) provides the clear-eyed cinematography and Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman) the soulful score. If the movie has a flaw, it's that it looks surprisingly mainstream, decidedly un-artistic, but this was on purpose; Lemmons has said that she wants people to be able to see the movie with their families. Perhaps more people will be touched in positive ways by Harriet than some of the other stern lectures could have managed.

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