It is a tale that seems to come up again and again. A woman director (even more so if they aren’t white) makes a critically acclaimed film or popular genre film and then years/decades pass before they get to make another major motion picture. It happened with Mary Harron, who after making American Psycho in 2000, moved almost entirely to TV directing before returning with this year’s Charlie Says. Many other women who directed films in the 80s and 90s including Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl 1983), Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts 1985), Mary Lambert (Pet Semetary 1989), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust 1991), Nancy Savoca (Dogfight 1991), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World 1992), Beeban Kidron (To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar 1995), Daisy von Scherler (Party Girl 1995), Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader 1999) have followed similar paths. This is not to say that some of these directors don’t have loyal fans or a cult following, it’s more that they don’t always have the name recognition or mainstream success of many of their male counterparts. The same goes for Kasi Lemmons, who directed the sublime Eve’s Bayou in 1997, which Roger Ebert described as an “assured and powerful film debut” and, as Lemmons points out in a recent interview with Variety: “That was 22 years ago.” She continues: “I’ve spent most of my time in the 22 years trying to get movies made. And I’m very proud that I’ve gotten to make five movies. But I spend 80% of my time trying to get movies made.”
Lemmons now returns to the world of the major movie release with a biopic of Harriet Tubman, which has spent many years in development. The casting of Cynthia Erivo (star of two of 2018’s best films: Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows) in the titular role of Harriet has been somewhat controversial. Erivo is a Tony-award-winning Broadway star and two other prominent cast-members also have a musical pedigree – Janelle Monae and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. The cast is rounded out with current period film darling and Taylor Swift boyfriend Joe Alwyn (The Favourite, Mary Queen of Scots) as the son of the Brodess family, into which Harriet was born and raised as a slave. His feelings for Harriet are clearly conflicted – they were raised together and were close, but he can’t acknowledge that he may have feelings of tenderness towards her, so it turns to anger and a fierce-desire for control and ownership. Harriet’s sisters were sold ‘down-river’ when she was young and at around the same time, she was struck on the head by her master. Since then, she has experienced flashbacks, flashforwards, dreams and visions which she interprets as God speaking to her. Harriet makes the decision to escape North to freedom, leaving her mother, father, sister and husband behind on the Brodess plantation. This was the antebellum period, when the country was divided into North – where black people were free and the South – where they were still enslaved. Harriet makes it to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr), who is keeping a history of slaves and helping those who have escaped the South and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae), a black woman who owns a boarding house where Harriet stays. Harriet is determined to return to the Brodess plantation to help her family and friends escape, she succeeds in this and becomes one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of slaves escape to freedom. She becomes known as ‘Moses’ and has a large bounty on her head.
There is much to praise in Harriet, from the beautiful score by Terence Blanchard (who also scored BlaKkKlansman) which is inter-weaved with Gospel and slave songs including ‘Go Down Moses’ (some of which Harriet uses to alert the slaves to her presence) and for once it is a film worthy of a montage set to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. The costume design by Paul Tazewell is stunning – from Marie’s sumptuous dresses, to Harriet’s increasingly layered and practical jackets, hats and uniforms. The central performance by Erivo is excellent, as she exudes the definition of small but mighty. Leslie Odom Jr also gives an interesting performance and Joe Alwyn is impressive. The inclusion of the spiritual aspects and Harriet’s psychic visions won’t work for everyone, but it fits into the Southern Gothic and Mystic Realist feel of Eve’s Bayou. They do come from recorded accounts by Harriet Tubman herself, so have not been plucked from thin air. The film centres Harriet’s point-of-view and if she believed these things were happening and that they had a huge knock-on effect to her actions, it is important to show them. Where the film falls down slightly is in the structure and pacing. There are parts that drag and then the end – where Harriet’s involvement in the Civil War as a leader and spy for the Union Army is briefly referred to – feels hugely rushed. This episode in Tubman’s life seems fascinating and important, but it is bizarrely not included as a major element of the film.
All in all, this is exactly the kind of biopic that is usually beloved by awards bodies such as the Academy. However, it doesn’t seem to be part of the awards conversation, which is a shame when there are much worse films and worse biopics (looking at you, Judy) which are getting much more attention. It is sincerely hoped that Lemmons doesn’t have to wait another 20 years for a major film release and that Erivo gets more central roles in major movies. Harriet is worth your time and should be checked out on a big screen if you can.
Rating: ★★★ ½
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Written by: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe