clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Harriet’ director Kasi Lemmons sheds light on the fight for freedom via biopic

A film in the works over a quarter century, its coming to fruition in the monumental 400th anniversary of American slavery is spiritual, the director says.

Director Kasi Lemmons on the set of “Harriet.”
Director Kasi Lemmons on the set of “Harriet.” The Focus Features film smashed expectations opening weekend, drawing $12 million at the box office after its Nov. 1 debut.
Provided photo

Sporting blonde dreadlocks in a twisted bun, director Kasi Lemmons sits back to reflect on the vision she had for “Harriet,” the biopic on the iconic American freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.

She was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, preceding her film’s Nov. 1 debut nationwide. “Harriet” went on to smash expectations, taking in $12 million opening weekend ($9 million was predicted).

“There are tropes of slavery we’re very familiar with, and those are very important, recognizing that level of cruelty so present in people’s lives,” says Lemmons, 58, chatting at the Peninsula Chicago.

Logo for the Chicago Chronicles

“However, the Harriet Tubman story is a story about freedom. So I wanted to talk about movement, to have that intention. I wanted to talk about the fact Harriet was willing to die for freedom,” says Lemmons, who acted for nearly 30 years before turning to directing.

“I wanted to talk about resistance because I read stuff after the [New York Times] ‘1619 Project,’ where certain politicians said, ‘Oh, it’s all propaganda,’ and that there was no resistance, or we were happy in slavery. I really wanted to comment on what we’re willing to do for freedom,” Lemmons says.

“Eve’s Bayou,” Lemmons’ first film, was made on a budget of $3 million. It grossed $14.8 million. The late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert crowned it best film of 1997. In 2008, Time magazine named it among its “25 Most Important Films on Race.”

“Harriet” takes you to that uncomfortable place — enveloped in America’s unrepentant sin. Yet it manages to stay focused on our African American superheroine and the 1800s abolitionists who helped runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Tubman, after escaping, went back to lead more than 70 others to freedom.

The film had been in the works over 25 years — originating with Gregory Allen Howard’s 1993 screenplay, “Freedom Fire.” Producer Debra Martin Chase was given the screenplay in 2014, and, after many iterations, Lemmons came on in 2017 to rewrite and direct it.

Director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons with actors Zachary Momoh (from left, as Harriet Tubman’s husband, John), Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Tubman’s mother).
Director/co-writer Kasi Lemmons with actors Zachary Momoh (from left, as Harriet Tubman’s husband, John), Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Tubman’s mother).
Focus Features

So it was serendipity that an age-old story on American slavery came to fruition this 400th year after the first documented arrival of men and women kidnaped from Africa into the torturous journey to American shores via the barbaric, trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“The producers had been trying to make it for a really long time. Cynthia [Erivo] and I like to say, ‘This is when Harriet wanted the movie out,’” says Lemmons, who also directed other films including “The Caveman’s Valentine” (2001), and “Talk to Me” (2007).

Erivo’s powerful performance as Tubman has drawn Oscar buzz. But the film also has drawn controversy. Some African Americans were displeased with the choice of the British actress to play an American hero. Others have accused the film of resorting to a “white savior” narrative while highlighting the treachery of an African American bounty hunter and not focusing enough on slavery horrors.

“I think even the most well-intentioned writer or filmmaker can sometimes over-focus on violence to the body and not really deal with ‘These are human beings,’ ” Lemmons responds.

“I wanted to comment on the psychological cruelty of families being separated. While not physically violent, it’s violent. If you have to choose to leave your wife right after childbirth, that’s violent. If you see your sisters dragged away screaming, that’s violent. If you won’t leave your children because they’ve been hidden from you to control you, that’s violence,” she says, ticking off poignant moments in the film.

Director Kasi Lemmons (right) with actors Cynthia Erivo and Joe Alwyn during filming of “Harriet.”
Director Kasi Lemmons (right) with actors Cynthia Erivo and Joe Alwyn during filming of “Harriet.”
Focus Features

“The major reason people didn’t run is they wanted to stay with their families,” says Lemmons, a mother of two who teaches film at New York University. She’s been married 25 years to actor Vondie Curtis-Hall.

In aftermath of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, and the film has educational moments, such as the depiction of Tubman’s leading of a battalion of over 150 African American soldiers during one historic battle of that war.

“I certainly didn’t know there were 756 people freed that day. It’s something we should all know,” she says.

“I think we’re living in a dangerous time. We can feel the stain of slavery, to which we’ve never reconciled ourselves. We, as a country, have not grappled with our past the way other countries have grappled with their past and things that they’ve done.

“I think it’s because we have such enormous pride. But our past is very troubling, and we have to be willing to look it in the face, to try and understand how we got here. Only then can we say, ‘I’m proud to be an American,’ and really be saying something.”