It’s hard to believe but there has never been a narrative feature film about one of the most iconic names in US history – abolitionist, freedom fighter and political activist Harriet Tubman.
I spoke with writer/director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and independent producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg (The Kids Are All Right, Beasts of No Nation) on the trials and tribulations of getting a female-fronted and female-backed film like Harriet to the big screen, finding the right actress for the part and how the film delves into elements of Tubman’s life that most of us probably don’t know.
AW: Why do you think it’s taken so long for a feature biopic of Harriet Tubman to finally happen?
DTL: We’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think it’s just taken Hollywood a minute, and I don’t mean that sarcastically, to realize that females can be heroines and be commercially viable subjects.
KL: And then this is a black woman. A black woman that is kind of an action hero.
DTL: I think over the last few years things seem to be evolving. People are seeing that people will go see movies that have female leads and that they can be really successful if the films are good and they’re given the right resources. I think Hidden Figures did some work for us. I think Wonder Woman did some work for us, not saying this is like either of those movies, this is completely distinctive, but being able to point to something that has done well with a black female lead is really important because I think Hollywood is inherently a little bit nervous to do things that they haven’t been done before. So that’s my 2 cents on it.
KL: I think also when we think about doing biographical material, the biopic, it’s kind of the dreaded genre, right? When we think of Harriet Tubman, I think we somehow all go to this image of the old woman in the chair. And that’s what we wanted to dispel. We wanted you to see this young, vibrant woman who at the age she was, when she was actually doing most of her mission work, you know, in the decade before the Civil War. That was super important to us, to bring you the young woman because we thought that that was an inspirational figure in a different way than then than older Harriet was.
AW: That kind of perfectly leads into what I was going to ask next and that’s that most of US history, most of all history, is written by straight white men. So lots many stories go underwritten or unwritten. How difficult was it to find accurate information more so than say, what we all learned in school?
KL: In the 90s there were three marvelous biographies of Harriet Tubman that were written that were all very informative. With that and with what her contemporaries were writing about her, and looking at all that material, I did about seven months of pure research where I just read everything, and a very clear picture and a detailed picture begins to emerge of who this woman was. I mean these biographies were written by women, all three, and they are quite extraordinary. So I used those and I also used people like her first biographer, who was also a woman. But she embellished, I think she was so in the mid 1850s or the late 1850s, and the idea of trying to promote this woman to an audience of readers was an extraordinary thing at the time.
So she made is it as exciting as possible? So you have to kind of read between the lines of the contemporaries that were writing about her. But these wonderful biographies, that were written not that long ago, were incredibly well researched. And then we had the wonderful, good fortune of having one of the preeminent Harriet scholars as our historical consultant. So we were able to really put together a pretty accurate picture. It’s amazing how much of her we got in the details of her family and details of her story. But also what I think is like Harriet Tubman lore, you know; these characters especially that are always there, there’s always a Tilly, the one who’s passing for white.
DTL: Right, right. When Debra [Martin Chase] and I came up with the idea that Kasi should be the one there were many reasons for it we brought her into this, well, we sort of ransacked her (laughs). We brought her into a meeting without her really realizing that this was what her future would hold (Kasi laughs). Kasi felt an incredible responsibility if she was going to take this on, that she was going to have to do all the research that one could do on the character in order to tell the story as accurately as you can. And still make it compelling drama. And so she went into a hole for six months and she was like, ‘I’m going to do this, but I need to convene with Harriet. I need to go do the research. I need to make sure that I’m doing her justice because I think you can’t take on a subject like this that’s never been taken on cinematically and not feel that into tremendous weight.’
So for us it was so great to know that we put it in Kasi’s hands and she realized the responsibility and she’s gonna do it, do it right.
KL: You know, in fact, this point I’m a Harriet Tubman scholar.
DTL: She is!
AW: How difficult and daunting was it finding the right actress for this role?
KL: The producers found Cynthia Erivo while she was doing The Color Purple [on Broadway]. It was amazing. I figured this was a little scary, certainly a little intimidating to try and do such an incredible life, even a piece of it. But we have a chance if we have the right actor. When I sat down with Cynthia, the interesting thing was I had already begun my research and this image was building as to who this woman was. Petite, fierce, powerful, strong, fast and could sing. (laughs) And I’m sitting here with Cynthia and…she’s little, she’s fast, she’s strong, she’s fierce, she can sing and she’s got this incredible spirit. I knew this could work but it wasn’t until I was on set with her on the first day of shooting that I was absolutely sure that she was going to completely deliver and she does.
AW: Kasi, this is your first film in six years. Not that you haven’t been busy doing some pretty amazing stuff in between. Was it this film that brought you back?
KL: I spend the majority of my time trying to get films made. That’s the reality. I spend the majority of my time for the past 22 years trying to get films made. I work primarily as a writer and I’ve written about, I don’t know, 45 or 50 screenplays and these is the types of stories that I am drawn to and are often the kind that they don’t get to make. Their chances of being made are even lower than your average screenwriters chances. This was a wonderful opportunity, but I turned down a lot of work that. I have to have a burning passion for it because if I don’t the job is too monumental and too difficult to do if I’m not in love with it and passionate about it. Love and passion is what takes me through it.
AW: Speaking of, I cannot wait for the Madame CJ Walker limited series [in which Lemmons directed three episodes]. I have been wanting that story for so long.
KL: That’s great. It’s really good.
AW: Danielle, when I look at your producing filmography, it’s a lot of my favorite things in recent years.
DTL: Oh yeah?
AW: Kids Are All Right. Beasts of No Nation. Hello, My Name is Doris.
DTL: I love that movie.
AW: I love it so much. This is incredibly diverse and it is pulling from subjects and subject matters that are very fringe. Do you seek out these stories or do they come to you because you are a person that can get it done?
DTL: That’s a really good question. I’ve spent a lot of time with Kasi or the last couple of days, so we’ve been talking about all these things. I do feel that it’s come to me as my duty and passion to tell stories that aren’t obvious.
And by the way, I’m an independent film producer and so I don’t have the opportunity to make the film that everyone is making. I have to do the work and dig into stories that I see can be great stories and can be commercially viable but are also the underdog stories. I think the one thing that sort of ties my filmography together is they’re under represented tales. And so I do feel a responsibility there. And I also feel tremendous pride in being able to tell those stories through a lens that will bring a lot of people out to see them. And we’ll maybe like change a few hearts and minds, you know. I think Harriet’s gonna be seen across the country by a lot of people who probably know very little about who she was truly. And that is a tremendous success, whether it does well or not I consider that a success.
So yes, I do seek those movies out, but I’m coming to a place in my career where I’m not going to take on a project unless I see a path for getting it to a wider audience. I have my own film fund and I’m spending investor’s money that I know personally and I feel a responsibility to not just do that without a plan. I don’t know if that answers the question.
AW: Yes, absolutely. Also, I’m really looking forward to Good Joe Bell.
DTL: Oh God. Thank you for even knowing that. I think, I hope you’ll like that too. The director on that, Reinaldo Marcus Green, was a student of Kasi’s at NYU.
KL: And a fellow at Sundance. Thesis advisor.
DTL: It’s a really small world. (laughs)
AW: You mentioned earlier about finding the elements and the lore of Harriet Tubman and there’s a tremendous amount of this film that’s very faith based, in her visions and how she finds her path. How much of that is accurate?
KL: Oh all of it is.
AW: Wow, I had never heard of it from, again, what we learned in school.
KL: Oh you absolutely cannot tell the story without it. I mean, you could, but you wouldn’t be doing service to the story. It’s the Harriet Tubman story. And Harriet felt that she was directed. Directed. And this is where her strength and courage came from. She felt that she was in a personal conversation with God, and she felt it so strongly that she said God told her which way to turn. Right. But she also said a beautiful thing. She said ‘when the Lord has done with me, he’ll let them take me.’ So she felt that she would continue her work and when her time came the Lord would let them take her, which I think is really interesting. I mean, the things that she said and the way that she expressed was very motivating to me.
‘I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight. And that’s what I prayed for ever since.’ This was her fortification and also she had visions. There were so many profound visions that aren’t even in the movie. The story’s enormous and we’re telling a small portion of it, but she had visions that were so specific that it changed her direction. The visions were from childhood and from when she got hit in the head and were associated with seizures, but she had many different ways of talking. She heard God’s voice directly. She had visions, she had dreams and she had religious trances and she was spiritual, one foot was in another world, you know what I mean? She had her feet on the ground, but she was also plugged into this other force and even her contemporaries in a Christian country with like, ‘I don’t know if I believe it, but I know she believes it.’
DTL: I think the more research that Kasi did, the more we realized how big the spiritual element of Harriet’s life was, it literally drove her from place to place. For me, you have an instinct about a director and you think this is the right person for this. A lot of times that’s how these things come to be. It’s like it’s the right time and this person’s the right thing. The more she did research about Harriet’s spiritual life, the more it became obvious that Kasi was the perfect director for that because her whole filmography, a lot of it lies in the spiritual, the mystical, you know, we’d call Kasi a witch sometimes, she had these like success moments. So it just became more and more obvious that like she was the only one to do to the film justice.
KL: But I didn’t really know what going in. I didn’t know that aspect. I had to do that research, you know? And then I’m like, oh wow, this is speaking my language. (laughs)
AW: What does it mean for you personally to have this film and have it here now?
KL: I couldn’t be more proud. Some of what I’m really proud of is that this is produced by two women [Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Debra Martin Chase], written and directed by a woman, co-written by an African-American, Gregory Allen Howard, African-American composer [Terence Blanchard], African-American production designer [Warren Allen Young], African-American costume designer [Paul Tazewell], African-American hair and makeup [Belinda Anderson and Angie Wells] and just this wonderful rainbow group of people that came together to get this film made. But I’m very proud of the fact that it’s a woman-driven film.
AW: What do you hope audiences take away from Harriet most about who she really was?
KL: Well, she’s a very extraordinary person, but in many ways very ordinary. So when you look at this woman who was born enslaved, who could neither read nor write, who was physically tiny, very, very petite, who, with great frequency, fell unconscious at moments she could not control. She had fear, but her courage was greater than her fear. And her motivation was strong and her drive was strong. This is a great message for young people today. You can accomplish incredible things if you have a strong force of will and your courage outweighs your fear. So I want people to be inspired and activated by her story because it’s an incredible story, but it’s a real story. This woman lived, this woman was young when she was doing a lot of this work and this woman had a lot of things working against her, and yet she was able to accomplish incredible things.
DTL: I couldn’t agree more. We’ve watched the movie with a lot of audiences now and tested it and I think the thing I love is that people clap and feel so inspired and motivated after coming to this film. Harriet was a slave and I think the initial feeling was this is going to be a sort of heavy tale of slavery. Kasi was very intentional about making this a tale of freedom and about someone who is seeking freedom and fighting for others. And so the overall feeling of the film is one of incredible strength and inspiration and positivity and like you come out of there and you’re like, ‘okay, what am I going to do to change the world?’ It’s rare to have that these days, to really come out of something and feel like so alive and inspired and it’s a rare treat.
Harriet co-stars Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe and Joe Alwyn and opened in theaters on November 1 from Focus Features where it received an A+ CinemaScore and a strong $12M at the box office.