Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Considerable talent, an urgent true story, and awards season coincide with the release of Harriet, which opens in Seattle and environs this week. A biopic treatment of Harriet Tubman, the film tracks Tubman from the time of her status as an enslaved person, through her suspenseful escape, and back and forth across the United States as she traveled to liberate other people.
I regret to say the movie is underwhelming in many categories. But the acting is not one of them; Harriet is a starring role for Cynthia Erivo, who (after winning attention in the stage production of The Color Purple) brought an absolutely electric presence to Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Erivo crafts a fine portrait here, especially in the way she changes during Tubman’s evolution. In the early scenes, Erivo’s eyes are vague, looking away from other people; halfway through the film, she’s become focused, in charge of herself, staring down her enemies (and even sometimes her friends). And that’s just the eyes.
Director Kasi Lemmons does something interesting with the geography of the film. Because Tubman moves back and forth along the Underground Railroad, we see the same places repeatedly, each time taking on more danger; the repetition makes them seem like something out of a dream, or folktale. Landscape itself takes on a charged meaning, as when one Railroad conductor tells Tubman that a far spot in the distance represents a place where black people are free—the horizon doesn’t look much different from here to there, and yet, absurdly, a person’s selfhood will be altered by moving those few miles.
Because of these attributes, I’m bummed I can’t advocate for Harriet. Lemmons gained acclaim for her first feature, Eve’s Bayou (1997), another film I wish I liked more. Harriet comes to life only in spurts, and too much of it designed to fit a history-as-melodrama school lesson. The film also has a weird tic of mentioned the Almighty at least once every ten minutes; I would not be surprised if it had been partly produced by some kind of Christian association.
Lemmons’ previous work as a director (and actor, for that matter) is available at Scarecrow Video. Included in that work is an intriguing 2001 film, The Caveman’s Valentine, which I reviewed at the time for Film.com, reprinted below.
The Caveman’s Valentine
by Robert Horton
An awkward merging of murder mystery with social studies, The Caveman’s Valentine is ambitious and more than a little tedious. In this, it is similar to Eve’s Bayou, the first film directed by Kasi Lemmons. That slice of Louisiana melodrama garnered some very generous reviews, and it was clear that Lemmons had interesting ideas as a filmmaker. Perhaps bolstered by that reaction, The Caveman’s Valentine is proportionately more ambitious, and it falls down with a louder thud.
Lemmons takes a literal approach to presenting the point of view of the main character, a raving street person. He is Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), a once-promising Julliard
musician who now lives in a cave in some rocks in Central Park; he believes that the evil in the world is sent down by an all-seeing Big Brother called Stuyvesant, who beams gamma rays or something from the top of the Chrysler Building. Romulus’s madness encourages Lemmons to create crowded visions (including surrealistic glimpses inside the “brain typhoons” of Ledbetter’s mind) and a soundtrack full of trippy noises, which scurry around the sound mix like gremlins in the Dolby.
Romulus is a cliché, but he is certainly alive in Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, which is every bit as Old Testament as you would expect. For a while the movie threatens to become a hardcore My Man Godfrey, after Romulus strikes up a friendship with a rich Manhattan lawyer (Anthony Michael Hall, in terrific satirical form). Very quickly, however, the murder mystery arrives—a young man is found frozen in a tree outside Romulus’s pile of rocks—and the dread-locked schizophrenic becomes a sleuth. Solving the mystery, in turn, becomes a way for him to reconcile with his daughter (Aunjanue Ellis), a policewoman.
The trail leads to a Long Island farm, where a Mapplethorpe-like photographer (Colm Feore) holds sway over his slave-like assistants (of whom the dead boy was one). Despite the occasional visual pyrotechnics, this all plays itself out in conventional fashion. Lemmons seems torn between giving us a strange, offbeat hero or settling for a wacky homeless man we can still root for. Much livelier are the scenes in which Romulus intrudes on the overstuffed world of the Anthony Michael Hall character (whose high-rise apartment is decorated entirely with 1930s furniture, because the Great Depression was a good era for bankruptcy lawyers).
Kasi Lemmons is a talented director, but the conception of The Caveman’s Valentine—the dreary formula of the whodunit—tamps down her skills. It may have a good liberal conscience, and genuine sympathy for the rare perspective of a homeless person, but this movie is a fundamentally sentimental exercise.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.