Kasi Lemmons has had an interesting career. She began as an actor, appearing in such films as School Daze, Fear of a Black Hat, and Hard Target. The fine Eve's Bayou marked her directorial feature debut, and I was a fan of her Talk to Me. Now comes her latest, Harriet, which won many awards including six Women Film Critics Circle Award, one for Best Movie by a Woman. The movies I have seen of hers strike me as consistently good, if not great.
Lemmons (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does well by refusing to fall into the too-common pitfalls of biopics. As far as I know, Harriet sticks fairly close to the historical truth. While it becomes a bit repetitious, she never overdoes it. One problem is that Harriet Tubman was apparently too good at her job. It is said that she had a 100% success rate at conducting slaves to freedom, and the repetition combined with her skills mean the escape scenes eventually lose the kind of tension you expect in such cases. But Harriet rarely drags.
Another example of where the fidelity to real history causes a problem with the film is due to the fact that Tubman suffered a head injury when young that affected her the rest of her life. She would have headaches and seizures and fall unconscious. Tubman had visions during these times, which she attributed to God. That she was inspired is certain, and the film does a good job of showing how she used these incidents to make important decisions. But since the divine inspiration is never questioned in Harriet, it feels as if God, not Harriet, was the one saving those slaves. Tubman may have thought this was the case, but the power of her life as it comes down to us through history lies in her own very human qualities. Harriet Tubman deserves the credit, not the Lord.
Lifting Harriet above the usual is the tremendous, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role by Cynthia Erivo (Widows). Erivo is always believable as this woman whose commitment to freedom was unstoppable. She doesn't play Tubman as if she were just a person who might one day be on the twenty-dollar bill. Erivo gives us a Harriet Tubman who was a real woman, cutting through the historical figure. It's impressive.
(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)