‘Harriet’ is at Its Best When Emphasizing How Good Harriet Tubman Was at Her Job

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CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Bevy of Insults and a Few Scenes of Brutal Violence

Release Date: November 1, 2019

As I began to watch Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, the thought “Shouldn’t I be watching this in school?” passed through my mind. That is by no means an insult, but rather, it is an illustration of how my own experience (and the experience of many American schoolchildren) has primed me to feel towards a movie like this one. Tubman is an important figure in American history, so a film about her is a useful tool for history teachers to keep their students’ attention. In that sense, Harriet does not need to be a masterpiece (though bonus points if it is), it just needs to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of its subject. On that count, I recommend Harriet to any teacher whose curriculum covers the era of abolition.

For everyone else who is not watching this movie in a classroom setting, you might still be excited because it has taken more than a hundred years for Tubman’s story to finally get the full-blown feature film treatment (though Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson played her in earlier TV versions). Although, that excitement might be tempered by the difficulty of having to endure yet another movie viscerally showing the brutal treatment of the enslaved (as well as free black Americans). But I think the best way to appreciate Harriet is as a story of a person who does her job very well, i.e., the sort of character that Tom Hanks often plays. Cynthia Erivo proves that a woman and a person of color is just as capable of this role (not that any proof was necessary, given the historical record).

Tubman escapes to freedom on her own, safely travelling about a hundred miles by foot despite her illiteracy and the relentlessness of her slave master. She then goes on to help secure the freedom of hundreds of more slaves while pretty much matter-of-factly never losing any of her cargo, stunning her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad with her success rate. But as the steady, burrowingly intense eyes on Erivo’s face tell you, this is just what she does. Slavery had to end at some point, and Harriet Tubman was as up for the job as she needed to be.

Harriet is Recommended If You Like: Glory, Sully, Bridge of Spies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rescue Missions

This Is a Movie Review: Widows

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This post was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen

 

This Is a Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

I give Bad Times at the El Royale 4 out of 5 Room Keys: http://newscult.com/movie-review-bad-times-el-royale-fits-many-crazy-characters-genre-twists-possible-quirky-hotel/