History as Adventure Story—With Music

Mark Fields

, Entertainment

Biopic Harriet showcases the luminous Cynthia Erivo

It shouldn’t be surprising that the biopic Harriet, based on the life of renowned slave rescuer Harriet Tubman, should be a film resonant with music. Focused on the story of enslaved African-Americans, the movie is understandably rich with the recurring melody of spirituals.

But it also features a number of actors who are perhaps better known as musicians. Cynthia Erivo, who plays Tubman, won a Tony for The Color Purple on Broadway. Philadelphia-based abolitionists William Still and Marie Buchanon are played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton) and singer Janel Monáe. Jennifer Nettles, formerly of the band Sugarland, has a supporting role as a plantation owner. And director Kasi Lemmons is best known for the moody, lyrical Eve’s Bayou. As a result, there is music coursing through Harriet.

What is surprising, however, is what a stirring adventure Harriet is. It’s intense and exhilarating, and Lemmons (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Alan Howard) sets a dramatic but brisk pace for Tubman’s story, keeping the viewer consistently on edge.

Telling the story of the woman called Moses on film is, of course, way overdue. Harriet takes a figure from history who should be much better known and embraces her legacy, but does so by making her fully realized as a character rather than an archetype. Moreover, one of the refreshing elements about the film is that it is really about freedom, not slavery. Although the misery of the enslaved are never far off-screen, Harriet’s story is focused on her determination to escape that life, and to help many of her family and others to escape as well. Harriet also avoids a misguided habit of many films about African-American history, such as Glory or Amistad; it doesn’t make a white person the functional hero of the story to seemingly make it more accessible for white audiences.

In addition to keeping an emphasis on action (this is a film, after all, about running), Lemmons also wisely showcases the expressive face and body language of Erivo. Featured in nearly every scene in the movie, she has a magnetic screen presence. The rest of the cast ably provides support; of special note is Odom, Monáe, and Joe Alwyn as Gideon, Tubman’s one-time owner with a strange fixation on her.

Beautifully photographed by John Toll and resplendently scored by Terence Blanchard, Harriet is a visual and aural treat. The screenplay may suffer from a few too many noble “speeches,” but the real drama of the movie is inherent in the tragic social injustice on which Tubman’s story was based. As both an overdue history lesson and a rewarding human drama, Harriet delivers.

Harriet: 4 out of 5 stars

Eddie Murphy stars in Dolemite Is My Name. Photo François Duhamel/NETFLIX

Dolemite Is My Name

It may be somewhat off-kilter to juxtapose the intense drama of one of American’s foremost heroines with the misbegotten antics of a blaxploitation star, but in truth, both Harriet and Dolemite Is My Name are films about characters striving for self-realization, albeit in two very different milieus.

Dolemite (which opened in movie theaters in late October to qualify for Oscar nominations but is now streaming on Netflix) tells the based-in-truth story of Rudy Ray Moore, a frustrated entertainer in the 1960s who discovered unlikely fame in several mesmerizing home-made action films that were astonishingly bad and yet captivating. Eddie Murphy plays Rudy, and the comic actor’s legendary charm and self-confidence carry this slight tale of misfits triumphing over the system. Much like the late Robin Williams, Murphy has long struggled in Hollywood to find roles that can withstand the power of his own engaging personality. In Rudy and his stage character Dolemite, Murphy has a vehicle worthy of his often-wasted talents. A marvelous and equally funny supporting cast—Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess, Craig Robinson and a long-absent Wesley Snipes—make this many-fishes-out-of-water story delightful, hilarious, and yet sneakily thoughtful.

Dolemite Is My Name: 4 out of 5 stars

Also Playing in November: Linda Hamilton returns as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate, Nov. 1; Last Christmas brings Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding together for holiday romance, Nov. 7; Disney provides a sequel with Frozen 2, Nov. 11; and Tom Hanks channels Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Nov. 22.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.