Why Harriet Is Really a ‘Freedom Movie’

Kasi Lemmons on the mythos of Harriet Tubman and why the director’s new film is like “12 Years a Slave meets Django Unchained meets Wonder Woman

Focus Features

When the filmmaker Kasi Lemmons was invited to meet with the producer Debra Martin Chase a couple of years ago, she thought they’d just be having a general discussion. An actor who made her directorial debut in 1997 with the acclaimed family drama Eve’s Bayou, Lemmons remains one of Hollywood’s most under-recognized artists, despite her consistently strong output. Her résumé boasts nuanced gems such as The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) and Talk to Me (2007). But as the meeting with Chase began, Lemmons realized she’d been summoned to talk about directing a glitzy Oscar player: a biographical film about Harriet Tubman, with the Broadway luminary Cynthia Erivo attached to star. “I didn’t have advance time to think about it, so in the moment, I took my own temperature,” Lemmons told The Atlantic. “I felt my heart racing ... [which told me] this must be worth doing.”

Tubman, a figure so consequential in American history that the U.S. Department of the Treasury recently planned to put her face on the $20 bill, has never been meaningfully portrayed on the silver screen before. An abolitionist born into slavery in 1820s Maryland, Tubman escaped in 1849 and subsequently worked with the Underground Railroad to free dozens of other enslaved people. In approaching this story, Lemmons took a script that had been floating around the industry since the 1990s, revamped it to include more accurate details about Tubman’s history and personality, and focused on the younger years of a legend often remembered as a wizened icon.

“Film is how we understand a lot of history; it’s our most empathetic art form, and it’s how we love to examine things … [Tubman] is such a fascinating character, and yet this is the first feature film about her,” Lemmons said in an interview, during which she discussed Harriet’s path to the big screen, wanting to avoid slavery-movie clichés, and the “uphill” journey of her own film career. This conversation has been edited.

David Sims: What about the existing Harriet script did you keep, and what did you want to change?

Kasi Lemmons: I loved that it was an adventure story starring a young Harriet Tubman–type character. But I wanted it to be about the actual Harriet Tubman, you know? I think Gregory Allen Howard had written the [original] script before the major scholarly biographies had been written about Harriet. In the ’90s, there were three major biographies written. I did seven months of research on who she was, trying to bring as much specificity to the story as possible.

Sims: The film foregrounds Tubman’s religious devoutness, and the role that dreams and visions played in her life. Those are things audiences may be less familiar with.

Lemmons: It certainly surprised and intrigued me. I didn’t know how critical and essential [that intense spirituality] is to the Harriet Tubman story. When I started doing the research, I realized that you’re really omitting something if you try and tell the story without that, because when she talks about herself, she talks about that.

Sims: It can be tough to sincerely engage with her beliefs—she’s telling people she’s having visions of what’s going to happen in the future—and the film doesn’t think about those ideas as fanciful.

Lemmons: I took a position, you know what I’m saying? I took her word for it. She spoke about it very forcefully and with great certitude; there’s no ambiguity in the way Harriet talked about [her visions].

Sims: Were there certain Hollywood clichés about the depiction of slavery that you wanted to avoid?

Lemmons: There were a couple. Because it didn’t feel authentic to this story, I didn’t want a hundred slaves in a field picking cotton and a huge plantation. The Brodess family [who owned Tubman] had money problems—they had a farm, they had 14 to 20 enslaved people, many of whom were from one family. So I really just wanted to talk about what it was like for the Ross family [Tubman’s family] in that era and what it was like for the community of West Africans in the Chesapeake region.

Sims: The standard image of American slavery a lot of people have is more from the Deep South, whereas the film really communicates that Tubman was only a couple of hundred miles from the Northeast [in Dorchester County, Maryland].

Lemmons: Right. Being “sold South” was the horror you tried to escape. Three of her sisters were sold South.

Sims: In portraying the Brodess family, was there anything you were looking to avoid? They’re not sympathetic characters at all, but there’s that sort of desperation you’re talking about, that their family economy is on a knife’s edge.

Lemmons: When Edward [the patriarch of the Brodess family] died, he left [his wife] Eliza in a terrible position, and she was a desperate woman. It’s so inaccessible for most of us, the mental gymnastics you’d have to do to own slaves. The idea of property and its value, and that if you were broke, you might have to sell somebody. What would that feel like? How crucial was it to the way you were viewed in society? Your wealth was in people. I wanted to try and get [close] to that.

Sims: There’s a mundane quality to the family’s cruelty, which is chilling, but the Brodesses aren’t particularly cartoonish.

Lemmons: That’s exactly the way I would describe it. It’s mundane. They have debts to pay.

Sims: You said Cynthia Erivo’s performance in The Color Purple was something that drew attention to her for the role. The power of song in Harriet is a very important part of Tubman’s leadership and power.

Lemmons: It’s the Harriet Tubman story: that spirituality, that she communicated with song. That was the coded way she communicated with people, saying, “I’m here if you want to come.”

Sims: And you have Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe in the cast—did you want a musically inclined ensemble?

Lemmons: They were really the right people for the right roles. I just happened to cast people that are so talented that they have Grammys and Broadway careers!

Kasi Lemmons, left, on set with the cast of Harriet (Focus)

Sims: Going back to earlier in your career for a moment: You directed your first film, Eve’s Bayou, in 1997. How has the industry changed since you started making movies?

Lemmons: When I first started, there were not many women directors, and there were even fewer women of color. We were like unicorns. There was a very small group of us, and we all knew each other. We were swimming against the waves. That’s changed quite a bit; there are many more women now, though we’re still not at parity. For people of color, what you’re really seeing is the interest in these movies at the box office, which is what I was hoping for when I started working. That you’d have the variety of films and genres that Caucasian filmmakers have. That’s what I thought success would be measured by—when we have our horror films and our romantic comedies and our action films, all of the genres that you see in Hollywood. And we’re approaching that.

Sims: Have you found it difficult to put projects together since 1997? You’ve made a movie about every six years.

Lemmons: I’ve spent almost all the time trying to get movies made. I’m never not trying to get a movie made. I’m always in some process of writing a script, or working on some development of something that I’m hoping to turn into a directing gig. I spend all my time trying to push projects uphill, but it’s been a difficult journey. That being said, I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve gotten to direct five films and that I’m still in the business, because it’s not an easy place to be!

Sims: You made another biographical film that I love, Talk to Me, in 2007. Did you learn anything about the biopic genre there that helped inform Harriet?

Lemmons: Find out who the [subject of the movie] loved. Because who the person loved is the story, to me. It’s what they did, but it can’t just be a catalog of what they did. When you find the character’s passions and who they loved and trusted, and didn’t trust, that’s where you find the real story. In both films, I appreciate the decision to not try and do a cradle-to-grave biography. Both films examine a certain period of time that brings the whole [character] into view.

Sims: With Harriet, you’ve zeroed in more on the earlier part of Tubman’s life.

Lemmons: I was trying to include her family especially. There’s something very abstract about Harriet Tubman, even though we learn about her in school. We think of this old woman in a chair; we’re told of her heroic acts, but it’s abstract to us. What’s not abstract is what we’d do for our families, and that’s really her story. It makes her story more accessible—her love for her family and her wanting them to be free, as well as herself.

Sims: The first part of the movie is about her escaping on her own and how arduous her journey was. You make it feel impossible that she could ever do it again; it feels like such a miracle that she manages to do it at all. So the idea of her wanting to go back is frightening.

Lemmons: It’s tremendously frightening, and she did that 13 times. She’d go back in the wintertime, when the nights were longest. So it’d be cold, there was incredible danger, and she did it again and again and again. It was her job.

Sims: Were there any specific films that you thought of as an inspiration?

Lemmons: Not really, no. I felt that there wasn’t really a good comp.

Sims: That’s what interests me.

Lemmons: [Harriet] was genre-busting: People would ask me [to describe it], and I’d say, “Well, it’s 12 Years a Slave meets Django Unchained meets Wonder Woman.”

Sims: Because movies like 12 Years a Slave are steeped in how dehumanizing slavery is, and while that’s a part of the story you’re telling, it’s just a part.

Lemmons: Right. If I asked you to tell me what the story of Harriet Tubman was about, you’d say, “Well, she escaped to freedom, and then she went back to liberate others.” So I really focused on those words—it’s a freedom movie; it’s not a slavery movie. It exists in a very perilous and conflicted time in our country, but it’s really about freedom and what you’re willing to do for it—not just for you, but for others. To live free or die is a very powerful concept; Tubman says it over and over again. My favorite quote of hers is, “I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight.” That’s super interesting for the time we live in—there’s so much that we have to pray to be strong enough to fight for.