“HARRIET” (2019) Review

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

Many people are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the former slave-turned-Underground Railroad conductor-turned-Civil War operative-turned-political activist. She has appeared as a supporting character in a handful of television productions and the leading character in two other television productions. However, a full-length feature film has finally been made about the famous historical figure. That film is called “HARRIET”.

As I had earlier stated, there have been two television productions about the famous Underground Railroad conductor. One of them was an episode from the 1963-1964 historical anthology series “THE GREAT ADVENTURE” called (1.06) “Go Down, Moses”. It starred Ruby Dee. The other television production was the 1978 miniseries “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, which starred Cicely Tyson. Following the latter, the Harriet Tubman figure appeared in a few television productions about slavery and the Underground Railroad until the release of this new film.

“HARRIET” basically covered Tubman’s life during a nine-year period between 1849 and 1850, along with a sequence set in 1858. The movie began in 1849 Maryland with Harriet (or Araminta “Minty” Ross Tubman, as she was known then), along with her husband John Tubman and father Ben Ross (both who were free) approached Harriet’s owner Edward Bodress with a promise made by the latter’s ancestor that her mother Harriet “Rit” Ross would be freed by the age of 45, along with their children (including Harriet). Bodress refused to acknowledge the promise. He also forbade Harriet from seeing her husband John. Brodess’s adult son Gideon caught Minty praying for God to take Mr. Brodess. The latter died shortly afterward. Alarmed by this, Gideon decided to sell Minty as punishment. Suffering from spells that began after she had been struck in the head as a child, Minty had a vision of her being free and decided to run away. She convinced John to remain behind, in case he got caught and punished for escaping with her. Minty eventually reached Philadelphia and freedom. She managed to acquire a job, thanks to the assistance of Underground Railroad abolitionist/writer William Still and a fashionable free black woman named Marie Buchanon. After a few months in Philadelphia, Minty (who renamed herself as Harriet Tubman) returned to Maryland to retrieve John and discovered that he had remarried, believing she was dead. Instead, Harriet decided to escort some family members north to freedom and began her career as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

I have been aware of Harriet Tubman ever since I was a child of nine years old. My mother had purchased a copy of Marcy Heidish’s 1976 novel called “A Woman Called Moses”, the basis for the 1978 miniseries. But “HARRIET” marked the first time that Tubman was featured as the a character in a motion picture, let alone the leading character. So naturally, I had to see it. I had some problems with the movie. One, I could easily see that it was not historical accurate. This is not a real problem for me. After seeing two television productions that erroneously featured Harriet Tubman operating in the Ohio River Valley, the historical inaccuracies in this film struck me as a piece of cake.

One example would be the scene during her own escape in which her new owner, Gideon Bodress, and a slave patrol cornered her on a bridge. Instead of surrendering, she evaded them by jumping into the river. Needless to say, no such thing happened, since her owner (Anthony Thompson), or any slave patrol were able to capture her during her journey to Philadelphia. But . . . I was able to tolerate this scene. Somewhat. I was also a bit confused about her relationship with John Tubman in this film. Director-writer Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portrayed Harriet or Minty’s marriage as loving and trouble free. This has not been the case in another Hollywood production I could think of. Unfortunately, no one really knows whether the Tubmans had experienced any marital strife before her flight from Maryland. So . . . I tolerated this portrayal. However, the movie indicated that Minty had suggested John not run with her so that he would not be caught aiding a runaway. This is false. According to history, John did not want her to run in the first place. They also made it clear that John had remarried because he had assumed Minty/Harriet was dead. I do not know whether this is true or not. But it seemed as if Lemmons and Howard seemed hell bent upon portraying John in a positive light as much as possible.

But there were changes in the narrative that left me scratching my head. “HARRIET” featured Minty making her escape from Maryland in the middle of the day . . . which I found odd. The movie had her working in a garden when someone warned her that Bodress had plans to sell her to the Deep South in order to alleviate family debts. No sooner had she received the warning, one of the plantation’s foremen appeared to grab her. Minty ran and . . . hid. She hid around the plantation for hours before she contacted her family and left. What made this even more odd is that Bodress did not learn of her escape from the foreman until hours later. Which I found very odd. Historically, most slave escapes began in the middle of the night, not in the middle of the day. Why did Minty wait so long to contact her family before her escape? And why did the plantation foreman wait so long to inform Bodress? Also, she made most of her journey by night and hid during the daytime. Which would have made that daytime encounter on the bridge with Bodress somewhat implausible. I can only assume Lemmons and Howard had added it for dramatic reasons.

In the movie, Minty/Harriet did not wait very long to return to Maryland and contact her family and John. After escorting several members of her family north, she returned to Maryland and helped others escape on several occasions before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Now this is ridiculous. One, Tubman returned to Maryland to help some relatives escape at least three to four months after the law’s passage. I find it very hard to believe that she had made so many trips to Maryland between her own escape in September 1849 and when the fugitive law was passed in September 1850. Another troubling aspect of the movie was the sequence featuring the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The movie featured a scene with former slaves – including Harriet – leaving en masse from the Philadelphia docks, while God knows how many slave catchers suddenly appeared to capture these fugitives. What the hell? I had felt as if I was watching a war movie with refugees escaping from an invaded city. Yes, many fugitive slaves were forced to flee the Northern states for Canada following the law’s passage. But not like THAT. Not like a scene from “CASABLANCA” or “THE WINDS OF WAR”.

I have two more complaints. Why did Lemmons and Howard added that . . . relationship between Harriet and Bodress? Why? It was bad enough that Gideon Bodress never existed. But Tubman had never recounted having to deal with the unwanted sexual interest or assault from any white man. And I got the impression that Lemmons wanted to include some watered down version of the Patsey-Edwin Epps relationship from the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” – but without the overt violence and sex. It was obvious that Bodress had never laid a violent hand on Harriet in the film, aside from the slap on the face after he had overheard her wish for his father’s death. But I find it implausible that Gideon Bodress had never attempted to sexually assault her. Even when his father was alive. Another sequence featured Northern black and white members discussing the Fugitive Slave Act passage and whether it would be safe to continue the Underground Railroad. What I disliked about this sequence is that most of them seemed to have this attitude without the organization’s conductors appearing on Southern plantations to lead them, many slaves would not be willing to escape or would not succeed in escaping. And this was far from the truth. One could argue that this scene was a perfect example of patronization from Northern abolitionists. But Harriet did not point out that slaves were capable of escaping on their own. Instead, she simply argued for the continuation of the Underground Railroad. Which simply made her equally patronizing to me.

One would think that I disliked “HARRIET”. That person would be wrong. I actually enjoyed it very much. Despite some of the narrative choices, lightweight characterizations and historical inaccuracies; “HARRIET” was both an entertaining and interesting film. One, it is nice to see Hollywood produce a feature film about the former abolitionist. “HARRIET” is a thoughtful drama about a period in United States history about which very few Americans want to discuss, let alone contemplate. Like other Hollywood productions, the movie mainly featured Tubman’s early career as an Underground Railroad conductor. I had assumed that it would also focus on her Civil War experiences, due to some publicity stills released before the film hit the theaters. But the movie only included a coda, featuring Tubman’s participation in a raid during the war. “HARRIET” was, without a doubt, about her role with the Underground Railroady.

Due to the film’s focus on Harriet’s career as an Underground Railroad conductor, it did not focus that strongly on her family life . . . with the exceptions of her attempts to lead them to freedom. Many critics have complained about this. But I can understand why Lemmons only focused on one aspect of Harriet’s life. This was a feature-length film that ran nearly two hours, not a television miniseries. Frankly, I thought it was smart of her to focus one one aspect of Harriet’s life, considering the format she had used. And she focused on one of the former slave/abolitionist’s most famous period in her life – namely that as an Underground Railroad conductor. Only through this story arc was the movie able to somewhat focus on her connection to her family. In fact, one the most interesting arcs in this narrative proved to be a sequence that featured Tubman’s attempts to rescue her sister Rachel and the latter’s children.

This focus on Harriet’s career with the Underground Railroad allowed Lemmons and Howard to reveal Harriet as action heroine she truly was. The writers’ narrative arc also featured some well staged action sequences. Among my favorite sequences are Harriet’s initial escape from Maryland and her successful rescue of Rachel’s children in the film’s second half. Both struck me as well-shot sequences that featured a great deal of more tension and drama than action. And I thought the focus on these two aspects may have allowed the sequences to be more effective without the obvious action. I also enjoyed the movie’s final action sequence in which Harriet attempted to rescue and lead her parents to freedom in the late 1850s. Not only was this sequence filled with the usual solid action for this trope, it featured a tense-filled final confrontation between Harriet and Bodress.

I certainly did not have a problem with the film’s production values. I thought Warren Alan Young did an exceptional job in re-creating antebellum America, especially in scenes that featured the Bodress plantation, Baltimore (at least I think it is), Canada and especially Philadelphia. I believe Young was ably supported by John Troll’s sharp and colorful cinematography, Wyatt Smith’s film editing, Kevin Hardison and Christina Eunji Kim’s art direction, and Marthe Pineau’s set decorations. I also have to commend Paul Tazewell for his costume designs. I thought Tazewell did an excellent job of conveying the movie’s setting and characters through his costumes, as shown in the images below:

I have a confession to make. Aside from a handful, I was not exactly blown away by the performances featured in “HARRIET”. I am not claiming that most of the performances were terrible or even mediocre. I simply found them solid . . . or serviceable. There were a few that I found slightly above being serviceable – like Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Zackary Momoh, Tim Guinee, Henry Hunter Hall, Joseph Lee Anderson, Jennifer Nettles and Omar J. Dorsey. But like I had said, there were a few that struck me as memorable. One of them Clarke Peters, who gave a subtle, yet warm portrayal of Harriet/Minty’s father, Ben Ross. I was also impressed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, who gave an exceptional performance as the abolitionist’s emotional and slightly edgy mother, Harriet Ritt Ross. Joe Alwyn did an excellent job of portraying Gideon Bodress as a slightly complex character without transforming the character into a one-note, moustache-twirling villain. And I really enjoyed Vondie Curtis-Hall’s subtle, yet colorful portrayal of Reverend Green, the local free black minister, who also happened to be a member of the Underground Railroad.

But the performance that really counted in “HARRIET” came from leading lady Cynthia Erivo. It is almost a miracle that Erivo managed to give such an exceptional performance as Harriet Tubman. I say this, because Lemmons and Howard had failed to fully portray Tubman as a complex human being with not only virtues, but also a few flaws. Their Tubman almost struck me as a borderline Mary Sue, due to their determination to basically portray her as an action heroine. But they did provide some intimate moments between Tubman, her family and friends. And this gave Erivo the opportunity to skillfully convey the warm, yet strong-willed individual underneath the heroic facade. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Tubman’s desperation to put as much distance between her and the Bodress plantation as possible; her determination to return to Maryland to rescue her family; and her discovery that her husband had married another woman. Thanks to her superb performance, Erivo managed to earn both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. And if I must be brutally honest, she deserved them.

Overall, I enjoyed “HARRIET”. I have always been interested in Harriet Tubman as a historical figure and was happy to see a motion picture about her. It was not the best or most compelling biopic I have ever seen. Nor was it the best biopic about Tubman I have ever seen. But I cannot deny that thanks to Kari Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard’s interesting screenplay, Lemmons’ solid direction and a first-rate cast led by Cynthia Erivo, “HARRIET” is a movie that I will be more than happy to watch on many occasions in the future.

 

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.