For over a hundred years, Harriet Tubman’s story is one that needed to be told. It’s 2019 and finally this weekend Focus Features releases Harriet. The film goes beyond just being a regular biopic story, it’s a story of a hero. A hero’s journey.
When director Kasi Lemmons came on board, actress Cynthia Erivo was already attached, but the script wasn’t where Lemmons wanted it to be. There “wasn’t enough Harriet,” Lemmons says. Through researching the Underground Railroad and reading biographies on Tubman, Lemmons was able to construct her narrative. She realized there was more to Tubman’s story than just someone who led slaves to freedom. There was faith, family and a seaman’s lottery.
Once Lemmons had her story, she assembled the crew; one filled with historians to help with the scope of the film and bring authenticity to the film’s look. I caught up with Lemmons to talk about Harriet Tubman.
Finally, we have a story about Harriet Tubman. It’s taken us until 2019, but here we are. What was your reaction once you got the script?
I danced around the house. I literally danced around. I had had a little bit of time to think about it because my first meeting had been months before. In that meeting, it was interesting because I didn’t know it was going to come up in the meeting, but Daniela Taplin Lundberg mentioned it, and my heart started racing. It was both fear and excitement. It was months before I got invited onto the project.
I’d heard about people trying to do Harriet Tubman projects for years. You hear one floating around. I guess in some ways this was a perfect time. I like to say, “Harriet chose the time.” They’ve been trying to make the film for five years. The script had been written years and years before. I think for years, Hollywood wasn’t ready for a black female protagonist in the title role. Somehow through everyone’s hard work, it’s arriving now at the 400th anniversary of slavery in our country.
You talked about wanting to dive more into Harriet’s story and the family with this.
I’m not sure Gregory had the access to the research that I had the access to. He wrote the script in the 90s which is the same time around that these biographies were coming out. It might have been that they weren’t even written yet.
I was able to take those biographies and really digest them and read them. Also, every book on the Underground railroad. I really took all the work and looked for the discrepancies. I looked for where the truth lay between the lines and filled in a bit from my own imagination. It was so vivid to me, I thought I was having conversations with her.
I could check in with her, “Is it this or this?”
What I loved about it; the heroine aspect from being Harriet to the superhero. Visually, it was beautiful from the costumes to the cinematography.
I wanted it to have the scope. I wanted it to be lush. When you’re shooting and budgeting, you’re looking at your locations. If all of it takes place in one house, you’re good. Harriet’s story covers ground, and once, I did the research and realized it was a lottery story where you had seamen, boats, captains and slaves in the hulls of the ships. I got very interested in representing that as well.
The scope was something that I really reached for and something I felt was important to the story.
Something very important happened when John Toll came on board. I met him at Sundance. We were both advisors there. I happened to be in close proximity with a great DP, and I said, “Do you like Harriet Tubman?” I would slide up to him and work on him, [laughs]. It was through the labs. Fortunately, we were showing Eve’s Bayou. He sat in that screening and he heard me talk. He said that it was the best job interview ever because we got to know each other. Once he signed on, it was a very important step for people to realize what I was going for.
Paul Tazewell was recommended to me by Ruth.
Yeah. She said, “There’s this guy that won the Tony for Hamilton, and he’s really talented, but he hasn’t really done movies yet.” I met with Paul, and it was clear that Paul was an expert. He’s one of the historian artists which I just love.
I’d worked with Warren Alan Young before. So, it was about assembling that group of artists to give it the look and the authenticity. They’re historians, so they bring that to their department.
Terence Blanchard is also a historian. He’s just so incredibly versatile. It’s my fourth film with him, and we’ve even done an opera together. At this point, he’s like my brother. We are very close.
I described a feeling to him that also had to do with scope. It’s a big American saga. It’s a hero’s journey. He could get on board with that.
What was the one key thing that was so important to you for telling this story?
I really wanted to capture the nuance of what life was like for those enslaved people. Her womanhood was important. The fact that she was motivated by love. Maybe that’s the most important thing.
When we read about someone who is incredibly heroic, it can be hard to access. When you think of someone who went back for her husband, her brothers, her sister and her parents that’s easier to understand. You would think, “Would I do that?” At least the question becomes tangible. What would we do for love? What would we do for our family? That was super important to me. I thought it could bring her to us in a way that is super accessible. I wanted to show it without nostalgia and to make her incredibly present in everyone’s life. I wanted to present her as if she were right in front of you.
You’re shooting with her crossing Delaware. What were the challenges of that or even shooting in nature?
Shooting in the woods at night. It’s fun writing “EXTERIOR. WOODS. NIGHT” but as a director when I really broke it down and realized how much was exterior and how much was night and how much was woods. We were shooting in the Fall, but it was a cold and wet Fall in Virginia. We were cold. We were in the woods, and it was night. [laughs]. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was helpful. We could begin to experience just a tiny taste of what these people had to go through in this journey to escape and on this journey to freedom.
It was very helpful. We’d be shivering in the cold and standing in mud, but we’d also be thinking of how they had to hide in marshes when guards came for them, the incredible hardship of the journey and what courage it too. It was apparent to us as we shot in the woods.
Stand Up is an amazing song. It’s so empowering and such an anthem. What was it like for you the first time you heard it?
It’s so wonderful. I’ve been looking for a song for a long time. I’ve heard many many demos. Terrence turned me on to Joshua Campell. We asked Joshua to write a demo, and he called it, “Rise Up.” We knew we wanted Cynthia to sing the title song, so she came on and worked with Joshua to really rewrite it into a song that really suited her and one she could get behind. They worked the lyrics and they transformed it. The first time I heard that version of what they had done, I got goosebumps. I was walking around with my phone playing it for everyone. I was on the set of Madame CJ Walker, and I was playing it for everyone telling them to listen to it. It was a very powerful experience. It hasn’t worn off. Every time I hear it, I think it’s dope.
What’s the reaction been like for you to see and hear it, especially in someplace like Middleburg and other places where they’ve thanked you?
It’s been very life-affirming to go around the country to various cities screening the film. People have greeted me crying. It’s been a really powerful experience. I realize that this was essential. Even if we didn’t know it was essential, it was essential. To have a woman heroine. To have a black woman heroine. To have Harriet to herself is just so remarkable. To be able to bring her to the audience at this time is very resonant. People are very grateful to have this story. To have a woman and a black woman in the title role and such an inspirational hero is such a big deal.
This inspired me to seek out her story and read her books.
I hope that. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson is very good.
Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life: Beverly Lowry is another one I love. It’s incredibly well researched, but she does try to fill in things that I loved reading about.