Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

Talk to Me (2007)

I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.

Talk to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Black Nativity (2013)

I spoke in my review of Song One about what it is to watch movies on flights, and once again I find myself second-guessing my own response. Was I tired and emotional, did the altitude and atmosphere allow me to drop my critical guard? Because I really liked Black Nativity, and certainly outwardly it has a lot of elements that would usually ring major alarm bells. For a start, it’s unashamedly corny, but also unapologetically Christian — the title should make that much evident. It would be easy, in other words, to be cynical and dismissive. But however programmatic some of the character interactions may be — and this, being a morality play (and indeed, based on a play), leans heavily on allegorical characters grappling with moral choices — it frames them in such a way as to give them real force of conviction.

To a large extent, I think the film’s success is to do with the musical register (and I’m a sucker for a musical), a form which is very tolerant towards the melodramatic emotionalism the film strives for, as characters turn to song to work through their feelings. But it’s also to do with the performances, and you couldn’t really hope for a more accomplished company, both in terms of acting (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the central character’s estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife), and singing (Jennifer Hudson as the kid’s mother, and Mary J. Blige as a guardian angel), within which Jacob Latimore as troubled teen Langston holds his own very well. It hardly bears repeating the story, for as with many musicals (or indeed any opera), it cleaves to some fairly broad strokes: Langston and his mother Naima have been served with an eviction notice for their Baltimore flat, so Naima sends her son off to Harlem to stay with his grandparents, with whom she had severed contact when he was born for unclear reasons, the revelation of which is folded into the film’s denouement.

In pushing all its elements to a melismatic musical climax at the grandfather’s Harlem church, the film embraces the ideas of family, love, forgiveness, and just simple joy in boldly straightforward ways that had me caught up in tears, though I recognise that other responses may be available (especially if you are less forgiving of the story’s embrace of Christian spirituality). It also, not incidentally, testifies to a range of contemporary Black American experiences without lapsing into the overplayed cinematic terrain of gangs and violence, and celebrates a powerful history of cultural achievements — not least Langston Hughes, whose play the film is based upon, and after whom the central character is named (other characters’ names evoke Aretha Franklin, and Naima recalls for me John Coltrane’s standard of that name). Still, its critical reception seems to be largely middling to negative and that makes me wonder if we all saw the same film. The Black Nativity that I saw is a glorious achievement.

Black Nativity film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons (based on the play by Langston Hughes); Cinematographer Anastas Michos; Starring Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson; Length 93 minutes.
Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.