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Harriet

02 Feb

Harriet – directed by Kassi Lemmons. Biopic. 125 minutes Color 2019.
★★★★★
The Story: When her sisters are sold south, a young slave woman strikes out North for freedom, achieves it, and then returns and guides many others to freedom too.
~
The most interesting films for me these past few years deal with black subjects.

Why is that?

I am a bigot. I am partial to them. I have been fascinated about black folks since I was little. I wanted to get inside their lives, their affection, their sexual power, their brown skins, and their ways.

Impossible.

But It’s not just because they are a group living in America without speaking the English I was reared with, or that I am beguiled by the colors of their skins, or by their unusual and thorough laughter, and by their skills as dancers, but I am also beguiled by their barriers all this is to an entry into their world. Don’t they know that everything they do shuts me out? I am biased. I adore them. Without black folks this country is unthinkable. A hope indefatigable by frustration still keeps me looking in their direction.

But their foreignness certainly must have had something to do with their lack of normal representation even in the not-so-long-ago frayed suburbs of film history. Oh, they were always there, but as showpieces. Now, in recent films, I see they are looking back at me. They are seeing me! I am sitting in the audience and they are allowing me in.

New black folks’ films are rich in the way white people’s films are poor. They are rich because so much is at stake. So with Just Mercy. So with Harriet. How come all this is happening now?

Tyler Perry is the probably the richest and most successful movie person alive. And it is his work I credit with opening the door to other black story-tellers, because he has filmed the numerous stage plays he authored and produced and he has directed many dramas and melodramas, and these allow us to see black actors in roles besides slum dwellers, prisoners, or crack sniffers. They show middle class black folks in full dress soap opera. Tyler Perry has had phenomenal commercial success.

But more potent in the liberation of black film has been Perry’s lowbrow farces, which has allowed black folks and white folks and yellow folks and all kinds of folks to laugh not with but at blacks. His brazen cartoons of racial stereotypes have scoured the screen of political correctness as regards blacks. Medea and her family have opened the black door. They did it by causing us to fall off our highchairs with such laughter as to open audiences to a world that can then bring to us such confident films as Harriet.

Ta-Nehisi Coates novel The Water Dancer includes Harriet Tubman as the Conductress of The Underground Railroad who as a young woman parted the waters and miraculously drew her family to freedom. In Coates’ story Tubman is accorded supernatural powers that could transport slaves through thin air from plantation to safety. It is completely convincing. So is her story here.

Because her family disappeared into a river, Tubman was called “Moses,” but her original name was not Harriet Tubman, but Araminta Ross, or “Minty” as she was called and as we first meet her.

This part of the film interested me most. It established her as an adolescent slave in a large slave family working a medium sized Maryland farm. I see her with her husband, who was a freed slave. And I also see her crack into proleptic seizures, in which she received instructions and warnings from Higher Power — and who for a minute can doubt her?

She runs 100 miles to Philadelphia in a first escape that is a wonder of endurance, resourcefulness, and faith. Having reached safe port, she returns to the dread plantation and brings her whole family back to freedom. We know a good deal of how The Underground Railroad stretched to Ontario once white folks pitched in in New England, but it is a necessary education to endure the peril, stress, and difficulty of this young woman’s ordeal of flight as it began through the woods, over the open fields, and across the rivers, with blood hounds hot on her heels and overseers determined to retrieve their valuable property.

In her ordeal, we see her character firm up before our eyes.

I recognize only one of the many actors around her, which is good. Nor do I recognize the actor who plays Harriet Tubman herself. Also good. For I want no star to outshine my ignorance of Harriet and her story as it essentially must have been. Stars always gleam with a prior glow. But the young woman who plays her I have never seen before. She is as unknown to me as Harriet is, which is perfect for my pleasure and my belief in her, which is profound.

Cynthia Erivo is nominated for an Oscar this year, which encourages me to invite you to see her Harriet before Sunday.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, DOCUDRAMA, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 
 
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