This story was originally published in February 2019. "Harriet" hits theaters on November 1.
There’s enough material in Harriet Tubman’s biography to fill an entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her achievements are herculean: an escaped slave herself, she was instrumental in organizing the Underground Railroad, and would help ferry hundreds of people to freedom; later, she was a well-known abolitionist speaker, and even served as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. She’s an American hero, a warrior and an activist who saved countless lives, and whose life story seems tailor-made for the big screen.
That’s why it’s shocking that it’s taken so long for Hollywood to make a proper biopic about her. Multiple attempts over the years came to naught — in 2015, Viola Davis was in talks to develop a project for HBO that she would produce and star in, but that fell through. Shows like WGN’S Underground and NBC’s Timeless have devoted storylines to her character, but they’ve been supporting, rather than driving the main plot. As a result, the most in-depth portrayal of Tubman’s achievements dates back to 1978, when NBC aired A Woman Called Moses, a two part-mini series narrated by Orson Welles, and starring Cicely Tyson.
In a phone interview with Refinery29, Lemmons revealed some of the plot details, and responded to the backlash against Erivo’s casting.
Refinery29: What can viewers expect to see in the movie?
Kasi Lemmons: “It's the life of Harriet Tubman, but it just covers the period between when she escapes from slavery, and then the next 10 years. It does touch a little bit on the Civil War, but it most of it takes place in the decade after she escaped from slavery in 1849.”
Why did you choose to focus on that particular time in her life?
“The images that we see of Harriet Tubman and the way we're used to thinking of her is of a much older person, but to think what she did when she was a young woman is quite extraordinary.
That period of her life [is what] we often refer to, [but] we don't really have a lot of [visuals] from that period, when she was really doing her superwoman thing. She's this incredible figure. And it's also, of course, an incredibly poignant and interesting time in the country. Just so much turbulence, and Congress trying to appease the South to stave off the Civil War, but [there are] all these tensions brewing, and all this uncertainty and paranoia on the part of the South. The country [was] really trying to determine its national identity. Everybody feels that war is coming, and yet it's the catastrophe that nobody wanted to come.It's almost unimaginable, and yet it's right around the corner. It's a very interesting time in American history, and it's a very interesting time in Harriet Tubman's life.
As you were describing the mood of the country back then, I, for a second, felt like you were referring to the political climate today — were those parallels on your mind as you were filming?
“Yes, unfortunately it's on my mind that this is a country that is still awash in its turbulent history. We're still definitely suffering the trauma, and the after-effects of slavery. And that expresses itself in various ways. Obviously, there was so much progress that we felt, in [Barack] Obama being president. Look at where we had come in a relatively short amount of time, to come to a place where a Black man is president, and yet look what happened right after with the backlash. The way it swung, it was obviously incredibly polarizing. Right now it feels like we've been pulling a slingshot back in time, and it's incredibly frightening.”
It seems unimaginable that it’s taken so long for a biopic like this to get made. Do you feel like there's a real will now to finally not only tell a story about Black leaders, but also Black women leaders?
“Certainly I hope so. We're in a wonderful time for recognizing women. It's not been for lack of trying. People [have been] trying to make a Harriet Tubman movie for a long time. It's hard to get movies made, and it's hard to get movies made about Black people, and it's hard to get movies made with a woman protagonist. So, there are lots of reasons why it has been an uphill battle that many people have been valiantly fighting. I'm just very thrilled and honored that I've got the opportunity to do it.”
You made your directorial debut with Eve’s Bayou back in 1997 — do you feel that we’ve made tangible progress in terms of representation behind the camera, not just for women, but women of color?
“It's a completely different time. That was 22 years ago — a long time, and yet a relatively short period of time in some ways. In 1997, it seemed to me that we were on the brink of something right then that took a whole lot longer than we expected it would. On the other hand, when we think of the few of us that were working then, making movies, we were unicorns, and now we're definitely not. Now, there are a lot of women, a lot of African American women working in the entertainment industry, [but] statistics are still pretty abysmal. Those things are way out of whack. But at the same time, I don’t feel like a unicorn. It's been awhile since I have.”
It's interesting what you were saying about the late '90s, that it seemed like we were on the cusp of change. The fact that Spike Lee's just now getting his first nomination for best director —
— definitely reflects that.
“Amazing, right? That's astonishing.”
Cynthia Erivo was already attached to the project when you came on board, but what is it about her that appealed to you for this role?
“When I met Cynthia, I already had this picture of who this young woman was: very petite, very powerful and very spiritual, who could sing and who was an incredible mimic, and who had to be an incredible actress. All of a sudden, I'm looking at this woman that is all of these things. There's an athlete and a singer and an actress. I ask myself always ‘Do I believe it?’ That's what I tell my students [at NYU]. When you make a casting choice, do you believe it? And I sat with her, and I believed it. She brings Harriet Tubman to life.
There’s been backlash from those who believe a British woman shouldn't portray such a specifically American icon. How would you respond to that criticism?
“I just don't think that there should be those kind of rules in movies. I want an actress that I can believe, and that I can get behind, and that I trust to bring a character to life. It's art and it's acting. There has to be things that feel right about it. So, when I'm looking at an actress, and I'm saying, ‘Okay, I'm looking for a petite woman who's an athlete, who's spiritual, who's powerful, and who has recent ancestors from West Africa,’ and who I'm looking at [is] a petite, powerful athlete, singer with recent ancestors from West Africa — to me, it’s right. It's correct.So, though I really appreciate and respect the argument, I do. I understand it. I respect all kinds of arguments about those things, and a sensitivity to our own history and ownership. For me, thinking of making rules or having to have a passport to play characters is a little bit dangerous.”
What was it about Harriet Tubman that you found most surprising?
“I think that as much as we feel that we know about her in our limited education that we get in school and everything, there were a lot of things that I didn't know. The mysticism is what first drew me in. She was this Joan of Arc character. It's difficult to explain how she was able to do her thing if you discount mysticism. But there are lots and lots and lots of things that I learned about her that really were quite surprising and wonderful, and I can't wait for people to see.”
Do you feel a sense of responsibility or pressure in telling such an important story?
“Absolutely. Of course, which is why I immersed myself in research and really tried to bring Harriet Tubman, the actual Harriet Tubman, to film. I spent a lot of time and energy immersing myself in her, and really trying to connect with her on a spiritual level. It got to a point where I felt that she was with me all the time. When we were shooting, we felt that she was with us every day.”