Harriet (2019)

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn

Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons

125 mins. Rated PG-13.

 

It’s crazy to think that it’s 2019 and we still don’t have a major memorable release about the life of Harriet Tubman. Maybe I’m just not thinking about one or can’t bring one to mind, but I don’t think one exists. In fact, the film we’re talking about today almost didn’t get made at all, sitting on a shelf at Disney for years until they relinquished rights to the script. So with all that, how did it turn out?

When a young slave woman named Minty (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale, TV’s Genius) escapes and heads for the border, she takes on the new name of Harriet Tubman and joins up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express, TV’s Smash) and the Underground Railroad to become one of the most celebrated slave-rescuers in history. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) shows Harriet’s religious views when she has visions giving her direction in saving slaves, and it shows her fearless nature in the pursuit of freedom for her fellow slaves.

Let’s talk Cynthia Erivo here. I really liked what she did with the role, and I think she almost-flawlessly plays the role of Harriet Tubman. Almost-flawlessly. My big problem with the way Harriet is portrayed is that I don’t think the visions of God that she has works very well onscreen. I think there’s a better way to put this on film. It just didn’t work for me. I really think there’s a way to get this element put to screen better, and I keep thinking how, if it were put to film better, then it could be considered a strong film about religion. I kick on religious films a lot because I don’t think they successfully convey religious tones in a strong enough manner, and I think with the strong production of a film like Harriet, this could be something really cool if it were pulled off better. Back to Erivo, though, this film proves without a doubt that Erivo is capable of carrying a lead performance.

Director Kasi Lemmons does some good work in the film, but her presentation is a little formulaic and straight-forward, and what she needed to remember while making the film is that there’s a lot of the same thing happening in the film. That’s not to knock the incredible thing that Harriet Tubman accomplished, don’t think I’m saying that. All I mean is that the notion of her moving slaves to safety could’ve been given something more visual to represent the journey. Outside of her initial escape, I don’t the length of the journey is presented extremely well. It’s serviceable, but not truly accomplished in the movie.

From the supporting cast, I really enjoyed Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, UglyDolls) as Marie Buchanon, a friend to Harriet who gets her on her feet when she makes it to the north. They are both exemplary performers who elevate the material. Joe Alwyn (The Favourite, Boy Erased) also stars as Gideon Brodess, the son of the man who owned Harriet in the south. I didn’t like the way his character was portrayed in the film didn’t make him a fleshed-out character. I think the way to make a powerful villain is more than just being menacing and violent. There are moments early on in the film where he interacts with Harriet about their past and then it is barely mentioned after her escape. I would have liked their childhood past delved further into in the film through flashback to help fuel his character arc. Again, Gideon isn’t a bad villain. He does villainous things in the film, but I don’t think he’s a realistic villain and I think the finale of the film would have been more powerful if he was given more to do than be menacing.

Harriet is a strong enough biopic on Harriet Tubman that is worth your time. It’s far from perfect, but it’s pretty damn powerful nonetheless. Harriet won’t be accepting any Oscars come 2020, but this is still a solid history lesson about an incredible human being and an incredible triumph of the human spirit. This is still one worth checking out.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Boy Erased (2018)

Director: Joel Edgerton

Cast: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Joe Alwin, Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, Cherry Jones, Flea

Screenplay: Joel Edgerton

114 mins. Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use.

 

Joel Edgerton (The Gift) just kind of came out of nowhere. Sure, he had been acting for several years, but I never would have placed him as a more-than-competent director and writer, but he did just that with his first film. Now, he seeks to follow-up The Gift with the true-life family drama, Boy Erased.

Boy Erased is the story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea, Mid90s), a college student who is having a crisis of faith. He has impure thoughts about men. His mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!, TV’s Big Little Lies), and father, Marshall (Russell Crowe, Les Miserables, The Mummy), sign him up for a gay conversion therapy. His father is a Baptist preacher who will not allow Jared to live in his house or visit if he remains the way he is. Jared attends classes everyday with head therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton), a firm believer in the process who pushes Jared and others to the extreme in his quest to make them “normal” heterosexual boys again. As time goes on, Lucas comes to the realization that he is who he is and “changing” is not an option.

Boy Erased takes a while before it really kicks into high gear. The first half of the film to me was a little lost in trying to find its footing. I’m not sure what the big problem is because I like the film’s structure of beginning in media res. The writing is fine but the slow build nature mixed with some pacing issues in editing likely created this problem.

That being said, when it does get going, the last half of this film is an absolute powerhouse. Hedges and Crowe are, in particular, revelatory. There is one scene in particular toward the end of the film that these two share that brought me to tears. The raw emotion of a father and son on two completely different wavelengths is something so heartbreaking.

Writer/Director/Supporting Actor Edgerton holds a capable lens to the proceedings and he tends to just let the performances do the heavy lifting. His work as Sykes in a little disturbing and very saddening. As I said before, I think his writing stumbles a bit at the beginning, but all in all, he is a talent worthy of watching.

Edgerton has a moral focus with the film and its presentation of this conversion therapy. There are a lot of horrific things happening here and it’s made all the more shocking with his choice to end the film with some follow-up on the characters but also some facts about conversion therapy that really hit home with me. These types of endings don’t always work, but Boy Erased is a film that definitely sticks the landing. It’s just sad that a film like this even had to be made, but conversion therapy is a very real and frightening thing for LGBTQ people, especially the young ones who are already going through so much in their adolescence.

Boy Erased struggles a bit out of the gate, but when it finds its footing, Joel Edgerton proves to be a force both behind and in front of the camera. He fills his films with impactful performances that elevate his own craft in the process. It’s not an easy film to view, even with a few peppered moments of levity, particularly from Jared’s mother, but it’s an incredible moving tale about the human spirit and one man’s journey to accept himself. See this movie as soon as you can.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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