Tag Archives: African American

HARRIET, a Biopic Presented With Large, Bold Strokes, and a Performance too self-conscious to take seriously.

[image from the New York Post]

I had high hopes for Harriet since I saw the trailer first pop up during the summer at the Angelika. Actually, let me go a step farther: I was moved to tears by its rousing trailer where this woman, bound by slavery, defied it to its core and became the historical icon that she now is short of being the face on a 20-dollar bill, which she rightfully deserves.

So imagine my surprise which quickly became disappointment when, once Harriet the movie proper started, that I saw none of the passion, the urgency, the need to be free, and instead I was regaled by a color-by-number rendition so mawkish and clumsy in its depiction of Harriet Tubman that it felt at times as though I was navigating through a docudrama of the cheapest sort, the kind you could see in the 70s and 80s (and 90s, if you knew where to look) in which stock actors reenacted historical events in bad wigs, overwrought dialog, and music so shrill and derivative it could easily belong in any exercise in schmaltz starring Tom Hanks during his 90s heyday.

Harriet begins proper on a shot that looks like it was borrowed from Richard Linklater’s establishing shot of Boyhood, in which we see Minty (Cynthia Eriyo) who’s lying on the grass gazing dreamily at the sky thinking of happy thoughts when her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) comes and whisks her away, only to have us realize that while the two of them are married, only he is a free person of color, while she works as a slave on the Brodess plantation. Not only that, when Minty and her mother Rit Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) attempt to assert their freedom based on contract, the Brodess’ family will not honor it.

Something clicks in Minty, a mix of the visions she gets — a residual from a nasty blow she received from her master when she was a girl of 12 — plus her own gumption, and she sets off away from the plantation, leaving her husband behind and taking off into the unknown. Now, you would think that Kasi Lemmons would focus on her journey, which must have been frought with peril and extreme uncertainty — remember, this is a woman blindly fleeing for her life and her freedom, in enormous peril where every white face could bring her back to slavery. Lemmons instead goes for broad emotions using Eriyo’s singing voice to signal portent and this Dramatic Moment, which falls flat on its face. It gets worse. The moment Eriyo, cornered, makes that fateful decision “to be free or die”, the movie cuts away from her peril and into the aftermath. A woman in the river fighting for her life would have been a showcase for incredible, nail-biting tension as well as supreme acting. Lemmons squanders that chance. Finally, when Minty finally realizes she’s standing on land that will make her a free woman, her reaction is… off to say the least. She just doesn’t convey the enormity of her action in such small a body. I would have loved to see that.

I thought, probably budget constraints, maybe stunts weren’t available, perhaps logistics just didn’t make her plight seem more memorable than the fairly uneventful trek from Maryland to safe haven in Pennsylvania. But the movie then continues to somewhat not know what to do with Minty’s story. Yes, once in Philadelphia, she contacts William Still (Leslie Odom, underused) and he allows herself to re-christen herself Harriet Tubman. Checklist. But she has a moment when she is re-telling/reliving the horror of what she experienced to Still. The camera kept breaking away to these blue-washed scenes that are supposed to be her own visions and I was furious. I don’t need that. I need to see a performance, the camera dead on Erivo’s face, as she tells her story, exhausted but free and still not quite knowing what comes next. The movie brushes over Harriet’s own reaction to her new life as a free woman, but then punctuates her visions with the blunt force of an exclamation point to establish the urgency the she must go back to get her husband.

The husband part misfires, and again, that singing, please, make that stop, it takes me out of the movie (even if it was a way of her communicating). Lemmons goes down the list of Tubman’s achievements in bringing her first batch of people to the North, but again, colors her own actions with too much self-awareness of her own future greatness, as if all this was somehow preordained. That preternatural confidence, historically, came much later. Her first trip back, again, happens with so much ease that in one shot they’ve crossed the river, the next shot they’re in Philly. We never sense that Harriet the slave who freed herself is even in real and present danger, with bounties on her life and Lemmons’s movie plays it way too safe. We only see the marks on her skin, not the horror that produced them. It goes for the movie as a whole. We only get glimpses of slavery, but never more than a lot of white actors having to say unspeakable words and hamming it up to maximize how evil they are.

I don’t want to say Harriet is a bad movie because it is not: it’s closer to a necessary movie to watch to see for historical purposes but that is it. I didn’t find it compelling at all. The picture is flat. The music score by Terrence Blanchard is so intrusive and so derivative of the likes of Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer circa Hidden Figures I almost barfed at its repetitiveness. Erivo does a solid performance and will almost certainly glean Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but I still would have preferred to have seen a character study of a woman who gradually grew into her own by defying a system that would have diminished her as a person instead of a biopic that was too self-conscious for its own good. Perhaps a longer form narrative may be the thing, although it has been done with Cicely Tyson at the helm and it’s kind of hard to top Tyson.

LUCE tackles the ghost of prejudice and privilege and comes up with no easy answers.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars in Julius Onah’s Luce.

LUCE. Country, USA. Director, Julius Onah. Language, English. Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth. Screenwriters, JC Lee and Julius Onah. Release Date, August 2, 2019. Runtime, 110 minutes. Venue: Angelika Film Center. Mostly Indies rating, A +.

Sandwiched in between The Nightingale and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is what I consider to be one of the best movies this year: Julius Onah’s Luce. Based on JC Lee’s off-Broadway play and also co-written by Onah, Luce is quite the conversation piece because of how difficult a story it is: in fact, the story offers so much complexity in narration, and characterization, that one cannot but only follow its puzzle, interpret the information it (selectively) gives, only to have it reveal something else entirely, and arrive at a conclusion that one would never expect. This is the kind of movie that we need more of, not empty-plotted monster movies or lousy exercises in action. Luce, even as a character study and rooted in theater, has loads of action happening right in front of you (and some developments, off-screen). It is, in essence, a master-class in compelling story telling with a quartet of actors at their best, the standouts here being Octavia Spencer as Luce’s discriminating teacher and Kelvin J Harrison Jr as the title character and by far, the glue that holds this entire thread in the palms of his hand.

From the moment we meet Luce we get a picture of a successful, polite, charming young man who is being groomed for greatness. Once Luce was a child soldier in Eritrea and was rescued, only to be adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Through their love, their compassion, and — let’s face it — their affluence, Luce was able to conquer trauma, negative memories, and re-emerge into a star pupil at the verge of greatness in both his studies and athleticism. However, immediately that intro passes, we see some troubling signs that all is not quite right. For once, his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), known for being particularly hard on African American students, doesn’t exactly cheer Luce after he delivers a rousing speech at the start of the movie. It could be she’s just stern, or perhaps there is something else.

That something else reveals itself as an essay Luce has written from an assignment she herself gave, His topic of choice, Frantz Fanon, a controversial figure who wrote about the implementation of violence as a mode to confront colonialism, disturbs her so much she calls Amy to her office to discuss her parenting as well as to give her a bag with fireworks she found in his locker. Keep in mind, from this essay that she herself assigned, she has somehow felt it her duty to invade his privacy, the locker he shares with his buds, and fears he might have troubling thoughts lingering underneath. Today’s climate at school, with students potentially acting out scenes of violence, Wilson feels it is her duty to confront it head on and see if there isk in fact, any truth to that. Amy and Peter don’t confront Luce immediately, but Luce soon has a series of confrontations with Wilson — one, a rehearsal for a debate, the other, an apparently cut and dry meeting in her office where Luce possibly throws a veiled threat. Needless to say, this threat does not sit well with Wilson.

We question the reason the Edgars don’t immediately confront Luce with the evidence (that they even leave carelessly tucked into a cabinet in the kitchen). Its never clear if this is because of genuine love (and keep in mind, parents will go to the ends of the earth for their child, adopted or not) or perhaps a need to be White saviors for a child that in other circumstances would never have had a chance. Where the situation becomes a bit thorny is when Amy does bring her doubts to the surface. Luce immediately starts calling her by her first name and withdraws. She starts asking her own questions, and in a scene involving Luce’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), who may have had something awful happen to her at a party, she finds out more than she might have wanted to. This piece of information gets delivered extremely piecemeal, and when Wilson gets it in her possession, she sees it as a chance to vindicate herself, because as of yet, her claims have not been heard, and adding to that, the appearance of her mentally unstable sister at school, a scene that goes viral almost immediately, lands Wilson’s credibility and even her competence in shaky ground.

This is the type of story I live for. A narrative that seems to be at surface value cut and dry morphs constantly into something deeper and reveals shades of shadows even in its most well-defined characters. Luce forces you to first see one thing, then hear of another event linked, and then become privy to yet more information that might either negate what you thought was the truth and leave you with no one to truly root for. Is Luce a remarkable psychopath? Is Wilson, a strict teacher, in the right to have cut the dreams of another African American student short because she found pot in his locker, a locker that again, was shared? Could Luce have possibly engineered some of the later events in the movie and walked out a victor as Wilson despairs and his own parents sit silently by?

No answers, and that is just how I like it. Luce is a shapeshifting masterpiece with stellar performances from its quartet, one that crackles with tense energy and treats its scenario of life in school as if it were a puzzle with one or more of the crucial pieces missing and a growing sense of mysteries that we probably will not fully understand. Onah understands closeups and uses them to their maximum to elevate a rather wordy play into something else quite revealing… shadows hidden within light, characters who have traumas that they’d rather keep hidden.