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.
About Harriet Tubman
Video Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel
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.”