Kasi Lemmons explains why “Harriet” is a “freedom movie”

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When filmmaker Kasi Lemmons was invited to meet producer Debra Martin Chase a few years ago, she figured they would just have a general discussion. An actress who made her directorial debut in 1997 with the acclaimed family drama The Bayou of Eve, Lemmons remains one of Hollywood’s most under-recognized artists, despite her still strong production. His curriculum vitae is full of nuanced gems such as Caveman’s Valentine’s Day (2001) and Talk to me (2007). But at the start of the meeting with Chase, Lemmons realized that she had been summoned to speak about the making of a brilliant Oscar player: a biopic about Harriet Tubman, with Broadway luminary Cynthia Erivo attached. in the spotlight. “I didn’t have time to think about it ahead of time, so at the time I took my own temperature,” Lemmons said. Atlantic. “I felt my heart race … [which told me] it must be worth doing.

Tubman, such an important figure in American history that the US Department of the Treasury recently planned putting your face on the $ 20 bill, has never been meaningfully portrayed on the big screen before. Abolitionist born into slavery in 1820s Maryland, Tubman escaped in 1849 and went on to work with the Underground Railroad. free dozens of other slaves. Approaching this story, Lemmons took a script that had been floating around in the industry since the 1990s, overhauled it to include more specific details about Tubman’s history and personality, and focused on the younger years. of a legend often considered a shriveled icon.

“Cinema is how we understand a lot of history; it’s our most empathetic art form, and that’s how we like to look at it … [Tubman] is such a fascinating character, and yet this is the first feature film about her, ”Lemmons said in an interview, in which she discussed Harrietway to the big screen, wanting to avoid the clichés of slavery films, and the “ascending” journey of his own cinematographic 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 lemons: I loved that it was an adventure story starring a young character a la Harriet Tubman. But I wanted it to be about the real Harriet Tubman, you know? I think Gregory Allen Howard wrote the [original] script before major scholarly biographies were written about Harriet. In the 90s, three major biographies were written. I did seven months of researching who she was, trying to make the story as specific as possible.

Sims: The film highlights Tubman’s religious devotion and the role dreams and visions played in his life. These are things the public may be less familiar with.

Lemons: It certainly surprised and intrigued me. I didn’t realize how critical and essential [that intense spirituality] is in Harriet Tubman’s story. When I first started doing research I realized that you are really forgetting something if you try to tell the story without it, because when she talks about herself, she talks about it.

Sims: It can be difficult to sincerely commit to her beliefs – she tells people she has visions for what’s going to happen in the future – and the film doesn’t see those ideas as fancy.

Lemons: I took a stand, you know what I’m saying? I took her at her word. She spoke of it with great force and with great certainty; there is no ambiguity in the way Harriet spoke [her visions].

Sims: Were there certain Hollywood clichés about portraying slavery that you wanted to avoid?

Lemons: There was a couple. Because it didn’t feel authentic to me in 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 14-20 slaves, many of them from one family. So I just wanted to talk about what it was for the Ross family [Tubman’s family] back then and what it was like for the West African community in the Chesapeake region.

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

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

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

Lemons: When Edouard [the patriarch of the Brodess family] is dead, he is gone [his wife] Eliza in a terrible position, and she was a desperate woman. It is so inaccessible for most of us, the mental gymnastics that one would have to do to own slaves. The idea of ​​property and its value, and that if you were broke, you might have to sell someone. What would that give? How crucial was that to the way you were viewed in society? Your wealth was in people. I wanted to try to get [close] so that.

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

Lemons: This is exactly how I would describe it. It’s ordinary. They have debts to pay.

Sims: You said that 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.

Lemons: This is the story of Harriet Tubman: this spirituality, which she communicated through song. It 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 musical ensemble?

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

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

Sims: Let’s go back to earlier in your career: you made your first film, The Bayou of Eve, in 1997. How has the industry changed since you started making films?

Lemons: When I started, there weren’t a lot of female directors, and there were even fewer women of color. We were like unicorns. We were a very small group and we all knew each other. We were swimming against the waves. It has changed quite a bit; there are a lot more women now, although we are still not at par. For people of color, what you really see is the interest in these films at the box office, which I was hoping for when I first started working. That you would have the variety of movies and genres that Caucasian filmmakers have. That’s what I thought success would measure – when we have our horror movies and our romantic comedies and our action movies, all the genres you see in Hollywood. And we approach it.

Sims: Have you had trouble setting up projects since 1997? You made a movie every six years or so.

Lemons: I spent most of my time trying to make films. I never try to make a movie. I’m still writing a screenplay or working on developing something that I hope to turn into a director position. I spend all of my time trying to move projects forward, but it’s been a tough journey. That being said, I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to make five films and still be in the business because it’s not an easy place to live!

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

Lemons: Find out who the [subject of the movie] love. Because who the person liked is the story, for me. This is what they have done, but it cannot simply be a catalog of what they have done. When you find the character’s passions and who he loved and trusted, and who he didn’t trust, this is where you find the real story. In both films, I appreciate the decision not to attempt to do a cradle-to-grave biography. Both films examine a certain period of time that brings the whole [character] in sight.

Sims: With Harriet, you focused more on the early part of Tubman’s life.

Lemons: I was trying to include his family in particular. There is something very abstract about Harriet Tubman, even though you learn about her in school. We think of this old woman on a chair; we are told about his heroic deeds, but it is abstract for us. What is not abstract is what we would do for our families, and it really is his story. This makes her story more accessible – her love for her family and her desire that they be free, as well as herself.

Sims: The first part of the film is about her escape on her own and the difficulty of her journey. You make her feel like she can never do it again; it looks like such a miracle that she manages to do it at all. So the idea that she wants to go back is scary.

Lemons: It’s terribly scary, and she’s done it 13 times. She would go back there in winter, when the nights were the longest. So it was cold, there was incredible danger, and she did it over and over again. It was his job.

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

Lemons: Not really. I felt that there was not really a good composition.

Sims: This is what interests me.

Lemons: [Harriet] broke the genre: people asked me [to describe it], and I would say, “Well, that’s 12 years of slavery meets Django Unchained meets Wonder woman. “

Sims: Because movies like 12 years of slavery are steeped in the dehumanization of slavery, and while that is part of the story you tell, it is only part of it.

Lemons: Law. If I asked you to tell me what the Harriet Tubman story was about, you would say, “Well, she escaped to freedom, then she went back to free the others.” So I really focused on those words – this is a film about freedom; this is not a film about slavery. It exists in a very perilous and conflicting time in our country, but it is really about freedom and what you are willing to do for it, not just for yourself, but for others. Live free or die is a very powerful concept; Tubman repeats it over and over again. My favorite quote is, “I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight. It’s super interesting for the times we live in – there are so many things we have to pray for to be strong enough to fight.


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