And now for the latest in the star-crossed career of Kasi Lemmons. This woman was directing feature films long before this decade’s boom in African-American filmmaking, and they were really good. I agree with Roger Ebert that her 1997 drama Eve’s Bayou is a masterpiece, and I ranked her radio drama Talk to Me as the best movie of 2007. Yet large-scale recognition of the sort afforded to Ava DuVernay has eluded her, and as I’ve said before, Lemmons continues to be best known for playing Jodie Foster’s roommate in The Silence of the Lambs. It would seem that Harriet would be an ideal chance to raise her profile, being the first film bio of the civil rights icon Harriet Tubman and one that promises to transform her from the wizened old lady from the photographs into a young badass action heroine, so it’s disappointing how conventional the resulting movie comes out.
We first see Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) working under her slave name of Araminta “Minty” Ross on the Virginia plantation of a family named Brodess. Her children are sold away, and the master dies, leaving the property in the hands of his even crueler son (Joe Alwyn), so she decides to escape. With guidance from her religious visions and some sympathetic Christians along the way, she makes it 100 miles north to Philadelphia, where the abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) helps her settle and choose a new name. However, she’s not satisfied with her own freedom and makes numerous dangerous forays down South to help more slaves use Still’s Underground Railroad to reach the North.
Lemmons could have made Harriet’s visions stranger — remember the black angels with insect wings that she conjured in her 2001 film The Caveman’s Valentine? You could say the material needed a director with more feel for the action sequences, but I say the material itself is weak. Harriet’s romance with her free husband John (Zackary Momoh), which breaks when he refuses to escape with her, is treated in perfunctory and sentimental fashion, and the narrative stops dead every so often for Harriet to give a speech about how she would give her life for the freedom of her people. These are the failings of a much lesser filmmaker, and I don’t know how someone like Lemmons falls into them.
At least she still knows how to cast her actors. Clarke Peters, who’s always good to have around, lends his skills to the part of Harriet’s brother who convinces her other siblings to follow her. Janelle Monáe adds a silky touch to a landlady who puts Harriet up in Philadelphia, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles makes an impression as a neurasthenic slaveowner whose fire-breathing racism gets her out of bed.
As for Erivo, this short-statured dynamo from the London stage boosted supporting roles in last year’s Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, and here she proves more than capable of carrying a lead role. On her freedom forays, Harriet sings spirituals to alert hidden escapees that it’s safe to come out, and while other actors can sing, Erivo can saaang. I could just listen to that low register of hers all day. She deserves a better vehicle, and Harriet Tubman deserves a better biopic (and to be on the $20 bill). Instead, Harriet is what we’re stuck with.
Starring Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Written by Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard. Rated PG-13.