‘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

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This Is a Movie Review: Welcome to Marwen

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CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

I give Welcome to Marwen 2.5 out of 5 Glamonistas: http://newscult.com/movie-review-welcome-marwen-odd-true-life-story-made-odder-fitting-feel-good-movie-cliches/

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism

 

This Is a Movie Review: Moonlight

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What sticks with me from Moonlight? Mostly, it is the small, intimate moments: Juan (Mahershala Ali) holding Little (Alex Hibbert) in the water – an image that has already become iconic. Teresa (Janelle Monáe) setting the table and doing all the talking for her and Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Black (Trevante Rhodes) admitting to Kevin (André Holland) that he’s the only man who’s ever touched him. And I can’t go this whole review without singling out Naomie Harris (miles away from Moneypenny) for giving her all as Chiron’s mom Paula. Moonlight deserves plenty of credit for allowing black and gay voices to be heard, but more than that, the storytelling is right on as well.

I give Moonlight 18 Gold Grills out of 20 Evasive Facial Expressions.