One of the great ironies of the African-American experience is the iron clad embrace of Christianity by the Black community, a religion that arguably was initially used to justify slavery in the first place. Conversely, abolitionists later used the scripture as an argument against the institution of servitude. This question of faith is a subtext in the movie “Harriett” slated for release on Nov. 1.
Previously relegated to the history books, Hollywood has shied away from this potentially provocative subject until now. “Harriett” is a pleasant surprise as it heralds the return of the extraordinarily talented (yet vastly underused) Kasi Lemmons to the director’s chair. In this film she is aided and abetted by a talented cast including Omar J. Dorsey, Clarke Peters, Janelle Monáe, and Jennifer Nettles.
Composer Terence Blanchard (a veteran of Spike Lee films) and seasoned cinematographer John Toll also provide support.
The movie opens with the eponymous title character (Cynthia Erivo) in the midst of a narcoleptic seizure, a byproduct a childhood blow suffered at the hands of those over her. She interprets these resulting hallucinations as God’s method of directing her to become a messiah of liberation and deliver others to the Promised Land up north.
Lemmons has explored the questions of faith/hallucinations/mental illness before, with 2013’s “Black Nativity” (in which a child’s religious beliefs are challenged), 1997’s “Eve’s Bayou” (where a family is blessed/cursed with the gift of second sight or prophecy), and in 2001’s “The Caveman’s Valentine” (in which Samuel L. Jackson overcomes his schizophrenia to solve a murder). The photographic technique used here is not as effective as in her earlier efforts (although curiously the tintype-derived images used for the end credits work nicely in conveying the 1800s in which the film takes place).
Be it divine guidance or psychiatric malady, Harriett is gifted with a type of foresight and the ability to succeed in even the most impossible missions in her quest to free her peers. This comes with a charisma to convert a treasonous Black slave catcher (Harry Hunter Hall) into joining her ranks (“Since you talk to God, seems he answer back.”) as penance for his past transgressions.
This invites comparisons to 1999’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” by Luc Besson which depicts the French heroine Joan of Arc (Milla Jovovich) as a schizophrenic. Legend says that despite having no military training, she led France to victory over the British during the Hundred Years’ War thanks to divine guidance. Alas, Joan paid for her triumphs by being sold out, and burned at the stake for heresy. Harriett did her one better by not getting caught, going on to serve the Union heroically in the Civil War and being an activist for women’s rights into the 20th century.
In the final analyses, the jury is still out on “Harriett.” Its showing at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival was mixed. The movie drags in the middle, may be sentimental for some tastes, and some of the characters (especially the White villains) seem one dimensional (aside from Joe Alwyn as the slave master who mounts a personal vendetta in catching and returning Harriett to bondage).
In true Hollywood fashion, criticism has already risen over the casting of Cynthia Erivo, a British actress, singer and songwriter of Nigerian parentage in the titular role. Hopefully this performance will just be a stepping stone on the road to (super) stardom for this phenomenally gifted artist who has already added the Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards to her resume.
“Harriett” is rated PG-13, runs at 2 hours and 5 minutes.