By Kelly MacConomy
ALEXANDRIA,VA- October is kick-off time for the DMV film festival season, with tony Middleburg retaining its crown as the region’s premier festival, attracting A-list film makers and shakers from far and wide. Thirty-four films were previewed before limited or wide release worldwide, which is six more than last year. At this pace, the Middleburg Film Festival may soon grow too big for its jodhpurs. It’s not just for the DMV anymore.
MFF is a crystal ball for the Oscar short list. Of 38 films screened at the MFF in 2018, 28 earned Academy Award nominations with 23 receiving Golden Globes. The full slate of foreign films presented last year were all Oscar nominated and several went on to earn awards. So it may be too early in awards-season film releases to make official predictions, but in the case of Harriet I am willing to take the risk.
This isn’t your Disney-sanitized biopic or Tarantino tirade on slavery. It is the story of abolitionist saint Harriet Tubman. What most people know about Harriet Tubman scarcely touches on her Herculean strength and courage in the face of unrelenting trials and tribulations. Deftly portrayed by British Tony and Grammy winner Cynthia Erivo, she is a historical superhero: Wonder Woman, X-Woman, Oprah, Michelle Obama, and Sojourner Truth combined.
Harriet is directed to perfection by Kasi Lemmons, who earned the Agnès Varda Trailblazing Filmmaker Award. Gregory Allen Howard’s script was collecting dust in a Disney office when veteran Hollywood producer Debra Martin Chase rescued it and approached Ms. Lemmons to tweak the script and take on the direction.
Harriet was filmed entirely in Virginia, an experience that the director and producer called phenomenal. Filming was dubbed HTH (Harriet Tubman Hard) by the crew, referring to the challenges and hardships that Virginia weather extremes and night shooting presented to Oscar-winning cinematographer (Legends of the Fall and Braveheart) John Toll.
Terence Blanchard, the genius behind the evocative music for BlacKkKlsman, composed the score, which was complemented by African American spirituals and mashups of contemporary tunes. Without missing a beat, the audience joined in singing the opening hymn and clapped exuberantly with the closing spiritual.
Casting Leslie Odom Jr., winner of a Tony as Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, was inspired, despite his upstaging even Harriet in almost every scene. And filmgoers will love Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, Moonlight) as Marie.
National Geographic went for the Oscar hat trick this year by screening The Cave before its late October release. (Free Solo earned a Best Feature-Length Documentary last year, with Jane winning the Oscar in 2017.) The Cave speaks to profound and boundless compassion in the most dire trials of the heart and soul. Dr. Amani Ballour, a young, Muslim pediatrician and managing physician at the underground hospital known as the Cave, asserts her feminist backbone and resolute determination to make a difference in this world with charm and unwavering grace. Much like Harriet Tubman, she is a superhuman force of womanhood.
Sentimental favorite Willie was named Best Documentary by festival goers. Willie recounts the story of Willie O’Ree’s struggles confronting racism and discrimination as the first African American hockey player in the NHL. O’Ree was present at the screening, along with Neal Henderson, future NHL Hall of Famer and director/coach of the Fort DuPont Cannons Youth Ice Hockey Program. Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals co-owner and co-executive producer of Willie along with MFF founder/owner of Salamander Resort and Spa Sheila Johnson brought the Stanley Cup to Middleburg to highlight the occasion.
Looking to the main
Mainstream releases that screened at the MFF and are sure to be box office draws are Scorcese’s much-anticipated The Irishman, the who didn’t do it who-dunnit Knives Out, speed racers Ford v Ferrari, Tourette Clouseau’s Motherless in Brooklyn, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks in the acclaimed leading role as the beloved Mr. Fred Rogers.
Martin Scorsese reprises his operatic mobster tragedy thesis by reuniting Al Pacino with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. Rodrigo Prieto received the Distinguished Cinematography Award for The Irishman for technology that moves the trio back and forth in time with astonishing authenticity.
Knives Out is a hilarious roller coaster of a murder-mystery ride with an all-star cast of A and B-plus list actors: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, the ever-studly Don Johnson with asides by the gracefully maturing Queen of Scream and smirk Jamie Lee Curtis, and Toni Collette. Sneak-peekers were sworn to secrecy not to reveal the twisted turn of events.
Three-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton is the director/writer/producer/star of Motherless Brooklyn, a who dunnit of a different kind, as much for the premise as the plot. Last but absolutely fast is Ford v Ferrari starring Oscar winners Christian Bale and Matt Damon in a race to the finish at Le Mans.
Sheila Johnson and MFF Executive Director Susan Koch consider the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival a resounding success, possibly the best ever. But they aspire to elevate each year’s experience. Given the sweeping splendor of Virginia hunt country and the ambience and incomparable hospitality of the Salamander experience, how much room for improvement can there be?
Still, the best is always yet to come with these dynamo film patronesses. Sheila and Susan forever fail to disappoint. After the sold out Saturday Night Showcase afterparty, guests were led by handheld lanterns to the posh Salamander stable—Middleburg’s answer to real horsepower!