Last year, Kasi Lemmons came to St. Louis dressed for the weather during our most bracing winter in 30 years to screen her masterful first feature film “Eve’s Bayou” and to promote “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” a new work for Opera Theatre of St. Louis for which she wrote the libretto. She is used to climate extremes, having lived here as a child and experienced the blistering summers and numbing winters of St. Louis.
Shooting a film under such conditions can be brutal. Lemmons, the cast and crew had to contend with “grueling conditions” in an “uncharacteristically wet” Virginia in the fall of 2018, producer Debra Martin Chase said, when they shot “Harriet,” a biographical film about the great abolitionist and feminist Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman, as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, helped over 70 family, friends, and other enslaved people escape slavery. During the Civil War she led the raid at the Combahee Ferry, which liberated over 700 slaves. As the only woman in American history known to have led a military expedition, Tubman’s accomplishments are of such great proportion that it’s difficult to fathom how any human being could accomplish all that she did. She led around 19 trips to help slaves escape to freedom and never lost a life.
Lemmons was able to channel the spirit of Harriet Tubman while writing the script. It was a transcendent experience which kept her on track. Harriet became a kind of North Star for Lemmons whose role as a filmmaker was akin to being a conductor. To gain access to the means of production as a black woman and make feature films is no small feat.
“Harriet” is film geared toward a broad audience, yet it stays true to its mission of evoking the spirit, character and unique power of Harriet the woman and giving homage to the breadth of her historical achievement.
In the first scene, we see Harriet laid out on the ground. We learn that she is unusual because she has spells which give her visions. An injury to the head when she was 13 almost killed her and caused her to have spells, or blackouts, which led to visions. Harriet is immediately relatable in this scene because we see that she is loved by a man, her husband, a free man, and her family, with whom she lives on the plantation. The camera hovers and languishes over Harriet’s body lying on the ground. She moves agitatedly as she has a vision and then wakes from it. Her husband sweeps her up into his arms and tenderly kisses her.
This first spell that we witness as an audience is a spell which brings up agonizing memories of her sisters being sold, conveyed cinematically with de-saturated footage representing the past. She also sees water, sparkling pixelated footage of this life source, which will help guide Harriet in her escape. Another image introduced, which will return during her many spells throughout the film, is that of hundreds of feet running. The full significance of this particular image isn’t revealed until the end of the film.
Some audience members might find these montages a bit disconcerting at first. The director makes us feel disoriented, like Harriet experiencing a spell.
In collaboration with her cinematographer, John Toll, Lemmons aptly evokes a feeling of closeness to Harriet’s character by the way they film the actress, Cynthia Erivo, who plays her. Over-the-shoulder shots, which seem to place the camera squarely at the nape of Erivo’s neck, simulate Harriet’s perspective. A feeling of proximity to the character is also created by extremely tight close-ups capturing the slightest expression on her face, even the most guarded grimace or involuntary wink.
Lemmons’ direction and Toll's cinematography are spot-on in this regard, and a lesser actress than Erivo would not withstand such scrutiny by the camera. We feel Erivo as an incarnation of Harriet Tubman living and breathing as she would during every one of her scenes. This is a testament to her talent and having a talented writer-director like Kasi Lemmons, an actor herself, setting her up to make that leap.
“Harriet” was rated for mature audiences due to the violence. We never see slaves being whipped at the hands of the overseer, though huge keloid scars up and down some characters’ backs indicate past violence. In one scene, a free black woman and abolitionist, Marie Buchanan (played convincingly by Janelle Monae) is chased by a slave hunter and then tortured.
There are some revenge fantasy moments in “Harriet,” like when Harriet makes the sons of her former master pay for their horrid treatment of her sister’s children, which allows the audience to release some of the built-up tension.
The film also is peppered with moments of comic relief, such as a slave tracker’s confession that he has never been introduced to God. These moments help the audience pace themselves for the harrowing moments throughout.
Terence Blanchard has composed a noteworthy score which strikes the right pitch and has some interesting flourishes, which seamlessly expand the aural universe, punctuating the narrative of the film.
Visually arresting for the production design, costuming and cinematography are scenes where Black Jack sailors help Harriet take cover in the hatch of a boat; later, she climbs out of darkness into light, sharply evoking the genocidal Middle Passage.
The filmmaker has her last say in a small moment, one of my favorites in the film. Harriet’s abolitionist friend William Still (delightfully played by Leslie Odom Jr.) is taking a picture of her. He tries to adjust her hand so that she will strike the pose that he wants. She brushes his hand away and holds her hand as she sees fit with a stern look on her face as if to say: “I will control my own image and determine how I will be portrayed and remembered for the ages.”