Black Feminist in Public: Kasi Lemmons on Telling Harriet Tubman’s Freedom Story

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

Kasi Lemmons had already made her mark in Hollywood as an actor before her directorial debut in 1997 with the critically-acclaimed Eve’s Bayou—appearing in iconic films like School Daze (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Candyman (1992) and Hard Target (1993). In the years since, she continued shaping stories as a director: in 2001, with The Caveman’s Valentine; in 2007, with Talk to Me; in 2013, with Black Nativity; and in episodes from the television shows Shots Fired and Luke Cage.

This year, the African American writer, actor and producer, who is now also an Associate Arts Professor at New York University, has much to celebrate—and is breaking all new ground. Eve’s Bayou was recently added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, and later this year, Harriet, her film about famed abolitionist and freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, is set to premiere.

Harriet Tubman passed away over 100 years ago this weekend—on March 10, 1913. To mark the anniversary, Lemmons talked to Ms. about Harriet, freedom stories and Black cinema.

How did you come to direct this latest film on Harriet Tubman?

I got called in for what I thought was a general meeting with the producers about rewriting the script that they had for the Harriet Tubman movie. I definitely was interested, but I said, “Well, you know, of course it would be much more interesting if I was writing and directing,” and that’s when it really hit me that, Oh, I was in a meeting to talk about just that! I rewrote the script they had by Gregory Allen.

What changes did you make for the film?

I stuck much more closely to the real Harriet Tubman story and tried to put in both lore and as many historical facts as I could. I put in as much historical language as I could.

While making this film, what most inspired you about the life of Harriet Tubman?

There are so many things. I was most inspired by the fact that she was a mystic. That really speaks to me. That was something just really, really interesting that most people didn’t know. You really can’t do the Harriet Tubman story and ignore the mysticism and the visions.

I can imagine how much you can visually explore with that as a filmmaker.

Yes. Exactly. The mysticism is something that I enjoy. It’s kind of an obsession of mine, where reality ends and the mystical, more metaphysical world begins. It’s so tied to her character, and she so believed it. She believed that she was in direct conversation with a higher power and that she was guided. Honestly, there are so many things about her that are inspirational. I was also inspired by the fact that she was so tiny. She was a very, very petite person and a very strong person. Early on, I read a quote when I was doing the research. There are many quotes—real quotes as opposed to fake quotes—that inspired me, but one thing she said was, “I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight, and that’s what I prayed for ever since.” I thought that was an amazing thing for a woman of her time to say. She was a warrior. So, I was also inspired by her very real strengths and the fact that she was a warrior.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. (Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

Your comments remind me of something I read about Harriet’s star Cynthia Erivo, who talked about how excited she was that she too was small like Harriet Tubman. I do want to talk briefly about the controversy with the casting of Erivo because she’s not a U.S.-born black woman. What do you think of this idea that Harriet Tubman, as a quintessential African American woman, should be played by an African American actress?

I understand and respect the conversation. It just doesn’t have anything to do with my experience, you know what I mean? [Cynthia Erivo] was attached for years before I came onto the project. But I met her, and I said, “This woman is absolutely right for the part.” I thought, she’s West African, good. So is Harriet Tubman. She’s petite, she’s powerful, she’s an athlete, she’s a singer, as was Harriet. And she’s a magnificent actress. There’s nothing wrong with this picture. She’s perfect for the part. More than that, when I talk to my students about directing actors and casting actors, I say, “Make sure you believe it,” and she made me believe it every day. So, her performance is flawless, and she absolutely embodies the character. Those kinds of things become much more important because when we make films, of course we’re making them in a moment in time, but we’re not making them for a moment in time. You’re making something that you want to endure, that you want people to see for years to come. This petite, powerful, black woman is playing a petite, powerful, black woman, both of them with recent ancestors from West Africa. I have absolute faith in her, absolute belief in her. She transforms. She doesn’t sound like Cynthia, she doesn’t look like Cynthia. She’s Harriet Tubman.

What does it mean to embody someone like Harriet Tubman, who sometimes exists in our imaginations as this larger-than-life almost action superhero? How do you capture her humanity?

Well, that was part of the trick, and it was part of the trick of the writing because she overcame and probably was, in some ways, fueled by heartbreak, terrible heartbreak, but she was motivated by love and love of family and things that are very easy to understand and respect and to empathize with because it’s part of all of our stories. We love our family. We want the best for our family. So, that’s another thing that really inspired me about the story. This woman did not set out to be a hero. She set out to save herself, to free herself and then to free her family—and in the process of that, she became somebody who saved her people.

Her story is then one that starts from the ordinary and enters into the heroic.

Absolutely. I think it’s completely an inspirational story and very inspiring for women, particularly, that this little woman in this time, who could not read or write, was able to be so heroic, and really, it’s about how love can inspire us to heroism. Love can be the fuel.

Yes. Of course. And although she didn’t read or write, she was literate in other ways.

She was spiritually literate. She was in a conversation that other people don’t necessarily engage in.

Thinking of spiritual literacy brings me back to your earlier comment about Harriet Tubman being a mystic. It also recalls for me your first film Eve’s Bayou and the way you also engage in a mystical landscape with that film and with mystical characters. How would that film from 22 years ago be received if it had debuted today?

It’s so hard for me to imagine. Eve’s Bayou was the first screenplay that I tried to write by myself, and I wanted to write a personal story, not an autobiographical story, but something personal that was a fable because I loved fables, and I loved a certain type of magical realism in writing. I read a lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, and I was very interested in that type of storytelling. And so I was interested in telling the story that existed on a very concrete and physical level, but also had a metaphysical element that was extremely intertwined and that explored issues of memory and family and secrets. I was very into Southern Gothic literature and so I wanted to make a Southern Gothic movie.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman. (Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

Your film is such an important part of black cinematic history, and now we are experiencing what some have called a black cinematic renaissance with films by Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Amma Asante, Steve McQueen, Boots Riley and the juggernaut that is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. How does Harriet fit into this renaissance?

I’m so glad I have a film coming out in this moment, you know? Otherwise, I think I’d be envious. But at the same time, it’s my fifth film, and I’m just continuing to make films. So, I’m happy to be part of all the people that are working. It’s very funny when you’re casting a film, and you realize every black actor is working, and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s amazing!” What an amazing time. All these people are busy. This is great.

And this is a totally different experience when Eve’s Bayou debuted 22 years ago?

Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. The question is, “Is this a moment, or is this the future?” That’s something that’s always hard to gauge. Maybe we’re there now. Certainly, the box office potential is there, the demographic support is there. Filmmaking should reflect our times. It should reflect who we are right now. It can’t be dictated to us by one group of people.

When you talk about this moment, and let’s hope it is the future and not just a moment, it makes me think of another time when there seemed to be a number of slavery films, or films revisiting our history, to the point that some on social media complained that they didn’t want to see “another slavery movie.” How do you do a film like Harriet and transcend audience expectations that this will be another 12 Years a Slave or Django Unchained?

Harriet Tubman’s story is not about slavery. It’s about escaping from slavery. It’s about freedom. Most of her story exists in freedom. So, it’s a freedom story.

I asked the question because sometimes there’s this tendency to reduce a whole movie to slavery.

Well, look, we have a strong reaction to our own vile and complicated history in this country. That’s a process, but bringing it to the light is part of our healing. Besides, how many films have been made about the Holocaust or World War II or about Iraq or Vietnam? We keep examining complex situations because they’re interesting. That’s where the conflict is, but in this country, it’s extremely important for us to really examine, as artists, as historians, as journalists, as writers, to really examine our history because it’s recent history, and it’s very complicated history. Running away from it is extremely dangerous. Moreover, there actually have not been that many slavery movies. It’s just a subject that is very upsetting and complicated.

I do love what you said. That Harriet is not a slavery movie, it’s a freedom movie.

It’s a freedom movie.

Is it also a black feminist film?

Absolutely. It has to be. I don’t understand how you could really be living in these times and be a black woman and not be a black feminist. And Harriet Tubman actually worked hard on feminist issues. That’s what she did after the Civil War. So, she was a true feminist. Look, we are living in a world where we’re just beginning to reckon with many of the sins of our past, and obviously, I’m talking about the #MeToo Movement as well. So, we have to be feminists. We have to remind people, “Hello. We’re half of all humans.” It makes no sense to oppress women. That makes no sense at all.

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.