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.