Director Kasi Lemmons on set. (Credit: Focus Features)
Director Kasi Lemmons spent seven months unearthing little told details about Harriet Tubman to rework a screenplay that had lain dormant and direct it into the first major film about her life. After years of delays, audiences across the country will get to experience on the big screen Tubman’s painful and hasty journey 170 years ago, starring Cynthia Ervio, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe.
In an interview with Urban Faith, Lemmons, who made her directorial debut with the film Eve’s Bayou (1997), shared some insights on how she crafted the storytelling to introduce the “Moses of her people” to audiences in 2019.
UF: In this first theatrical treatment of Harriet Tubman, what did you hope to accomplish?
KL: Really to get her story out there and to add to images that we had of her as an older woman and really give a context to her work. She was a young woman when she was doing these incredible feats of heroism. She loved, and she was loved, and she was passionate. One of the things I think that makes the story so accessible and not at all abstract in terms of her as a hero is that she was motivated by love of her family and love of her husband. And that’s why she originally went back. It was for her family.
UF: In the event that some say set her on the path to divinely led life as an abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, around age 13, was hit in the head with an iron weight. Many films that explore slavery capture the audience’s attention by opening with a scene of violence, but your film doesn’t. Why not?
KL: I really wanted to speak in the movie to the separation of family rather than the violence to the body. Definitely, it’s an important part of our history and understanding slavery, but also, what is the violence of separating families? It was in the news and it was very much on my mind and it’s very much a part of her story. She was haunted by the image of her sisters being taken away.
The thing that stopped most people from running away, if they chose not to, is they wanted to stay with their family. That can be missing at times in stories about slavery. When visiting or shooting at plantations where people have been enslaved you feel the horror, but you also feel the kind of sacredness, the kind of hallowed ground where these people lived and loved and had children and worked and suffered. They led lives. Sometimes the brutality, I feel, can kind of get in the way of you really seeing that these were people with lives.
UF: You show a lot about Harriet Tubman’s character through her dialogue with others. How did you find these words to put in the mouth of Ms. Tubman?
KL: The way that I write is the way that I write for fiction and nonfiction, which is I start with character. But when you’re writing something about someone who has really lived, you start with the research. It’s a character, but you’re starting with the research.
Harriet did one-woman shows for groups of abolitionists to raise money. So we have her own words because she would talk about her life to abolitionists who found her absolutely fascinating. She was entertaining. She would sing Go Down Moses. She would tell her own stories.
Sometimes I’m using the words that she actually said. For instance, she said, “There I was with a suit and no husband.” Because I know that she said that one sentence that way that tells me something about her and how she talks. So I used actual authentic quotes of hers. And I start to hear a rhythm. I can feel where she’s humorous or ironic. I can feel her intelligence and then a southern cadence, which is very important to me. What is that cadence like in Maryland? What is the regional specificity of it? And once I get into the research and start to look at it that way, I hear characters as if they’re talking in my ears and then I write down what they say.
An expert speaks about the role of spirituality in Harriet Tubman’s work. Video courtesy of Cassie Chew
UF: Where do you think Harriet got her resolve? Who were her role models?
KL: Her father was a role model. She and her father were very connected–spiritually connected as well. They were bonded in that way. But also her mother was very fierce. I Iooked at the story that comes from her childhood, where they were going to sell her brother and her mother intervened and fiercely stood up to her master and was like, “I’m going to break your head open if you try to sell my son.”
So I look at that fierceness that comes from her mother and I say that’s part of Harriet. We tend to not think of enslaved people as quite human until we examine all of these things and then you say, of course, she had role models. We know that Reverend Green was a very complex character who was very important to the underground railroad. He became very important in her life. So he would have been a role model as well.
UF: Even though plantation owners used Bible passages to convince their workers that a life of slavery is what God wanted, the slaves were able to parse through that definition of spirituality. But that was instrumental in Harriet Tubman’s success.
KL: They so underestimated the enslaved people who worked for them and lived on their plantations and farms. They so underestimated them that they completely missed it. It was a whole language going on and a form of communication that, as we know, started with the drums and then became a coded language in spirituals as well. They were coded messages for those that were ready to hear them. There were coded messages in most of the spirituals. There were coded messages in the scripture as well and as it was interpreted into spirituals by the African American community.
UF: Your earlier work, Eve’s Bayou, included a fictional character who saw visions. How did that work inform your writing on what some people consider divinely led visions that led Tubman’s work as an abolitionist?
KL: The two films are in conversation with each other. I come from a very southern family and Mozelle was based on my aunt. So to me, that’s something very familiar to me–something that’s been a part of my family. It’s been a part of a lot of families that I know and it’s part of Harriet’s life. When I realized from doing the research that this was such a big part of her life, I’m like ‘Oh, this is speaking my language. I know this language.’
UF: Why has it taken so long for a major film project on the life of Harriet Tubman?
KL: It’s hard to get any film made. But it’s been hard to get a film made with a female protagonist, not to mention a Black female protagonist. You know what I mean? And this is like recently we’re able to say, “Oh a film could be viable with a woman as a protagonist.”. And so the idea that a Black woman can carry an adventure film in the title role is still a relatively new idea—you know people have had the idea before, but you were told that that might not be viable or that Black dramas were not viable or that dramas starring women in period pieces were less viable than dramas staring men.
I think that we are seeing the industry change and there’s lots of reason for optimism. I do believe that we are beginning to see more representation, more films with women protagonists, and honestly, it really has to get diverse behind the camera. The storytellers and the gatekeepers of storytelling have to be diverse because we’re the ones interested in it.
UF: What do you look for in a script?
KL: I try and just look at an overview of the story and see if it’s a story that I like and if it’s a character that I like. I’m very interested in character. It’s really the way that I approach a story. So for me it’s like, is the story interesting? Are the people interesting? Do I want to spend the next two years, maybe three years, maybe four years of my life involved in this story? A story has got to be so compelling because it takes a very long time to get movies made and you have to sustain the passion that happens. I have to have a love for a project before I agree to sign on as a writer/director.
UF: Do you think this film might add to calls for Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?
KL: I absolutely hope so. I can’t really think of anyone more deserving. The funny thing about those men on the bills is that most people don’t know very much about them. So what they really should do is look into Jackson. You know, look at the history of him and everything he did and was responsible for and look at Harriet and everything she did and was responsible for and you tell me who is more deserving to be on the $20 bill.
He’s very problematic as many of those guys and yet they are still commemorated. I think that it’s time to really commemorate Tubman and give her a place in history. I think she’s a really essential and important American hero. And people do. If you ask people who are the most admired people that have ever been Americans, her name is going to come up. She’s kind of like essentially an American hero–this idea of live free or die, give me liberty or death, that’s very American. She deserves her place in history and she deserves her place on the currency as far as I’m concerned.
With the peculiar institution of slavery entrenched in Antebellum life, Harriet “Minty” Ross Tubman, in 1849, learns that the Brodess family, who have owned her since birth, are about to sell her in order to pay off debts from running their small farm in eastern Maryland.
With her older sisters sold to plantations in the Deep South and never heard from again, Minty has no time to waste. She goes to the field where her mother is working. She sings a spiritual in her mother’s earshot. Then she goes back to her slave cabin grabs a knife and begins tucking it into her skirt. But Minty pauses, draws out that knife and takes some of her precious few moments to use its pointy blade to draw a heart on the dirt floor.
In these moments from “Harriet,” director Kasi Lemmons hopes to communicate to audiences how painful this hasty departure 170 years ago must have meant for the woman who would become known as Harriet Tubman after making a remarkable decision to leave her husband, parents, and siblings to be free or die.
Despite the odds, the five-foot Tubman, who also was prone to “sleeping spells”, makes it 100 miles away to freedom in Philadelphia. As a young woman in her mid-twenties, she finds work and creates a life for herself. But her longing for her family is so strong that she does the unexpected.
Tubman makes a risky decision to go back to the plantations of Maryland’s eastern shore to get her husband and then, again and again, to lead other family members and friends out of slavery. She eventually makes a name for herself as one of the most successful conductors of the “Underground Railroad.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Brian Ivie dreamed of becoming a famous filmmaker. While enrolled in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, he studied some of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood directors in pursuit of that goal. But a newspaper article about a pastor in one of the poorest districts in Seoul, South Korea, who built a Drop Box in his home for people to deposit unwanted babies with disabilities took him abroad to document that story. He came back to the U.S. realizing that he, like those babies, also needed to be saved.
Do you think your purpose as a filmmaker is to tell more nuanced stories of Christianity?
Well I think when I first became a Christian I figured you had to go to Africa and live in a tent and serve as a missionary, and then God called me back to Hollywood. I think that was something I really struggled with because I didn’t understand how that could be reconciled with my faith and what I wanted to do, which was to just tell people about God.
And, of course, as I know now, this is really the greatest way to do that because the houses of worship of our culture are really not churches, or temples or mosques, they’re YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. So my purpose, I would say changed way beyond movies, meaning that my heart now is to build God’s kingdom instead of building my own empire. That would be the truth even if I was a chef, or anything else, but I think when it comes to movies, it’s always something I knew wanted to do. I just didn’t know why. I didn’t know what stories I was going to tell. So now I think I’ve just committed to myself that whatever story I tell it’s going to be about Him. It’s going to be what he’s like. My heart is to make Christian films for non-Christians, basically, films that preach beyond the choir and invite people in.
The canon of faith-based films generally features storylines where there are fewer blurred lines about the impact of faith in someone’s life. It also hasn’t included documentary. Do you think you’re breaking into any new ground in how you chose to tell this story?
My films have these themes and these ideas because of who I am, less because its something I’m trying to engineer. The more I spend time with God, the more the films have those kinds of ideas and the themes are present. I think that’s true of any filmmaker no matter what. Filmmaking is a very spiritual endeavor, no matter what you believe. I don’t know if I’m breaking new ground, but I think what I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned. I think most faith-based films are just part of the “holy huddle,” and they’re just preaching to the choir and don’t really make sense to anybody outside of church culture.
I didn’t grow up in the culture of Christianity. I grew up watching Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson. So I hope that I can reach kind of a different audience, definitely a younger one, but also one that is much more cynical and skeptical and hopefully reaches them where they are. Usually, they’re not watching “God’s Not Dead.” They’re watching “Stranger Things” or “The People vs. O.J. [Simpson],” so, that’s kind of what I’m hoping to live.
The documentary form was really just chosen because of a lack of resources, because it’s cheaper, initially, but I also think it lends itself well to talking about faith because that’s what people expect from documentaries—is to be educated or to be confronted with something. Whereas usually, it can feel like a bait and switch, in a documentary you’re able to have a real conversation with someone, that’s why I like that form.
What have you observed from audiences who have screened EMANUEL?
I think what I’m really thankful for is that audiences have, no matter what they come into that room with, they’ve come out, I think, more free. There are a lot of people who have a lot of anger. I think that anger is very justified and very righteous in many respects—especially in the African American community.
African Americans come out of the film really honored. I think that was really cool for me to see because as a White American my fear was that I would, in some way, even unintentionally, just whitewash the movie. But thankfully in every screening, I’ve had an African American come up to me and say, ‘thank you for not doing that’ and “thank you for honoring my people, thank you for giving us a voice.’ Honestly, I just see my role as handing the microphone to people who really have something to say. So, that’s been amazing.
For White Americans that come in to see the film, I’ve seen them be very humbled and quiet. That’s been really cool to see, too, because it shows that we’re now listening a little bit more to the wounded people of our country and in our community that really need healing. That’s not just going to be through conversation. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s a start. Then, I’ve also seen people come out of the film who are feeling like maybe God is real, even if they didn’t walk in with that belief, and that is my greatest goal. So that’s been really encouraging.
Speaking of race were there any challenges that you felt that you had to overcome to show the family members they could trust you with their story?
At first, I was very scared that this would be disrespectful or weird or at the very least it this would be something like you say, a huge obstacle because there’s certainly something I can never understand about being Black.
There’s a wound that’s just too deep. A lot of times I don’t say anything at all and I just listen and let them share. Which is why I think a lot of the interviews are so like you said, uncut because I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. But I will say that I didn’t conduct the interviews with the families. That was a choice that I made so that they could look at somebody who understood them and understood their experience at a deeper level. So my producing partner Dimas conducted those interviews and also really pastored them and cared for them through that process because he is a Reverend.
But I think honestly the families really embraced me. That was a super surprising thing, but I think it was less because, even just White/Black and all that, it was because beneath all of that or before all of that my identity to Christ. I shared that with them. As I said to them at the first meeting I wanted the world to know where God was in all of this. They had never heard a media person, whether Black or White, say that before. So I think that’s why they came to trust me.
How did the project come together?
I tried to stay away from the story for a year because I didn’t want to be an opportunist but then ended up meeting my producing partner Dimas Salaberrios on a totally separate project. He asked me what was really on my heart and I told him the story in Charleston. He ended up having been there and marched over the bridge and prayed over the families and had relationships and so we really just started to work together and joined hands to see if we could tell God’s story through this.
So we met with the families. Viola was a friend. Stephen was not. But they both ended up seeing the film. I think of Viola as an activist and Stephen as a Christian — both of them really as Christians. Stephen was a man of faith who was trying to build a new company that stood for Christ in Hollywood. They both felt like this was a story that they didn’t want the world to forget. Mariska, in a similar way, was really moved by the story and in her own life had had a lot of loss and trauma and felt that this film presented a way of healing and the rest is history.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on the Kirk Franklin movie. My first interaction with faith was in a gospel party in college and so it’s really exciting to see the confluence of all that Kirk has made and also my own experience in this project. We’re hoping to get that done at the end of the year.
Forgiving the gunman who shot nine worshipers four years ago during Bible Study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church wasn’t an option for some family members.
“Let me tell you something. I was really mad. Really angry,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Washington Lance was among those killed when seventy-seven bullets were fired as they bowed their heads to pray on the evening of June 17, 2015. “But when you look at him, you can’t give this person the power over you. You just can’t.”
Collier made these remarks at the Washington, D.C. premiere of EMANUEL, a documentary film on the shooting set to screen June 17 and 19 in theaters across the country, marking the somber fourth anniversary of the tragedy. Through interviews, family members tell the stories of their loss as scholars help viewers understand this mass shooting through the lens of South Carolina’s past.
The film’s two-night run also highlights the extraordinary remarks family members made to the shooter just forty-eight hours after the killings of their pastor, their grandfather, their mothers, their aunts, their sisters, and their children.
“I just want everybody to know that I forgive you,” Collier said to then 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed White supremacist, as he appeared before the court and the family members via video conferencing for his bond hearing. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.”
Reverend Anthony Batiste Thompson lost his wife Myra, who that night was leading the Bible study for the first time. But he continued those sentiments. “I forgive you and my family forgive you…We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most—Christ, so he can change you.”
Roland Martin leads a panel discussion with Nadine Collier, Polly Sheppard, Rev. Anthony Batiste Thompson, and Chris Singleton after the screening of the film ‘Emanuel’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.
In the film, Felicia Sanders recounted feeling the warmth of her son’s blood after Roof walked up to him and fired several bullets into his body while she and her eleven-year-old granddaughter quietly lay nearby under a table. But she too forgave.
“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” Sanders said. “Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my hero, but as we said in the Bible study, “We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.” Roof also shot and killed Susie Jackson, Sanders’ aunt.
Given the lingering effects of South Carolina’s legacy as the first state to secede from the union during the lead up to the Civil War, along with the historical burnings of Black churches, some onlookers found these expressions of forgiveness remarkable.
As the filmmakers analyze the events of the shooting four years later, during a time in America when the ideology driving violent acts of White supremacy persists, they hope audiences develop a greater understanding of this reaction and a deeper insight into the capacity for forgiveness among these family members. All have deep connections to their faith and to Emanuel A.M.E., one of the oldest Black churches in the South. Even as they sought justice, they chose to forgive the person who took away their loved ones, forever changed the course of their lives and tested their faith.
“It’s a miracle that people here can forgive…and that’s not just because they were conditioned by their environment. Those that forgave—it wasn’t an act of weakness by any way,” said Dimas Salaberrios, one of the film’s co-producers. “God showed up and did something that we can’t explain, but it’s very real and it’s very powerful. I hope that African Americans around this nation will really tune in and see what God has done and the hearts that he’s given us to be able to forgive.”
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 14: Friends and family of “The EMANUEL 9” before a screening of the film ‘EMANUEL’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for EMANUEL Film)
Not all family members immediately forgave the shooter and that, too, is an important part of this story, Salaberrios says. “What I’ve learned from examining the lives of these families is that different people are in different places.”
Bethane Middleton Brown lost her sister Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor in the shooting. “I agreed that we needed to [forgive], but I wasn’t there yet,” Brown said. “Mine came because I noticed that my anger was getting worse. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. Finally, I was able to put a face on my emotions and realize that I had forgiven. I never have any anger that links [Roof] in my thoughts. My anger is just simply, I want my sister here. So I have forgiven. I still would like to make sure justice stays, but I have forgiven.”
The loss of these nine lives led to the immediate removal of the Confederate flag, which flew on the grounds of the state capitol building for decades and was featured in many of the images Roof posted on the pages of his social media accounts.
Even so, four years later Tyrone Sanders, husband of Felicia and father of Tywanza, who at 26 was the youngest victim, still is struggling with forgiveness.
“I don’t think I can ever get there. I guess the historic truth about America, you know like slavery, the Indian Removal Act, and Trump’s talking about building a wall,” Sanders explained. “I was born and raised in the church. Christened, baptized, sang in the choir. My grandfather was a preacher. My great grandfather was a preacher. My mother sang in the church and all of her sisters. I grew up in the church,” he said.
But that still isn’t enough to comfort the loss of his son during that midweek Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. that evening. “If I’ve got to forgive, that’s where it will be. Up there. It won’t be on this side. I’ll take that to my grave.”
With EMANUEL as his second major documentary film project, these are the stories that director Brian Ivie feels called to capture.
“What I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned,” Ivie said.
Among the films producers include actresses Viola Davis and Marisky Hargitay and NBA MVP Stephen Curry who will donate their share of the profits to the survivors of the shooting and the families of the victims. Visit www.emanuelmovie.com for more information about the time and location of a screening near you.
A previously unknown portrait, c. 1868, of abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is unveiled at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, on Monday, March 25, 2019. The photograph is believed to be the earliest photo of Tubman in existence. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
For her many trips transporting slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, historians have bestowed the title “Moses of her people” upon escaped slave, abolitionist, nurse and spy Harriet Tubman. But the images we’ve seen of Ms. Tubman in history books of an aging, frail and stern-faced woman, haven’t quite matched up to her legacy.
Now, a newly unveiled photograph of a younger Harriet Tubman gives new insight into the life of the legendary activist. Purchased at auction, the photo, included in an album along with four dozen other images of 19th century activists in the abolitionist movement, is now on display at the National Museum of African American History of Culture in Washington, D.C. NMAAHC and the Library of Congress, two years ago, pooled their resources to purchase the album, which unknown to the collector prior to the auction, featured a carte-de-viste photograph of Harriet Tubman taken in New York in 1868 or 1869.
“What this image does is give us a sense of a forty, forty-one-year-old Harriet Tubman. You can imagine how this woman could have led people through the swamps, this woman could have spied for the union, this woman could have demanded that America live up to its stated ideals. It really gives us a sense of a vibrant and active Harriet Tubman,” NMAAHC founding director Lonnie G. Bunch, III said Monday at the photo’s unveiling at the museum.
The photo showing Ms. Tubman seated, wearing a dress with a ruffled sleeve, her hair styled in a middle part, is typical post-Civil War portrait photography. “This photograph makes her human,” Bunch says. “She’s not the superstar. She’s not Moses. She’s not the great general. She’s a woman who did extraordinary things.”
Emily Howland, a feminist, abolitionist and schoolteacher who taught at Camp Todd, the Freedman’s School in Arlington, VA, was the original owner of the album. In addition to Ms. Tubman, the album contains circa 1860’s photographs of lesser-known, along with well-known activists, including Sen. Charles Sumner, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and the only known photo of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to Congress.
“The pictures in this album show us the faces of activists and abolitionists, lesser-known figures, who now have their stories told,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, announcing that the photographs are now part of the public domain and available to view online, download and include in educational materials.
At least ten of the photos in the album were of teachers, some of whom were part of efforts to educate African Americans. “Emily Howland was a teacher and there are other teachers in this album—that shows you the importance of education. Teachers were change-makers as well,” Hayden said.
History book images of Ms. Tubman have thus far depicted her as a somewhat silent, solitary figure returning alone more than a dozen times to the South with few clues of her life beyond interactions with her co-conductors along the Underground Railroad. The photo gives new insight into her life as a free woman and her circle of influence.
“For me what I take away from it is the dress—there’s a stylishness to it,” Bunch said. “There’s a sense that Harriet Tubman is not this enslaved woman, beaten down but really somebody who said, ‘I deserve to be treated like a middle-class American woman and this image is one of my ways to demonstrate that.’”
Ms. Tubman’s is the final picture in the leather bound album of carte-de-viste photographs. Also known as CDV’s, these relatively inexpensive two-inch by four-inch photo cards became a popular option to take and share portraits. The positioning of Ms. Tubman’s photo in the album gives insight into how she was regarded among her peers, says Rhea Combs, NMAAHC curator of film and photography.
“When you think about the ecosystem of the people in this album, you can liken it to social media and who we have in our friendship circle.” [Howland] was able to demonstrate who her circle of friends were, and more importantly, the way that she’s placed Harriet Tubman at the end of that album, serves as a punctuation, as a period, as a real symbol of what I think Emily Howland’s life embodied,” says Combs. “It embodied something that was around freedom, social justice and equality for all. And no one better represents that and reflects that than Harriet Tubman.”
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