Freedom Fighter: Kasi Lemmons’s Biopic Brings the Saga of Harriet Tubman to the Big Screen

She’s a legendary figure in American history, such an icon that the U.S. Treasury has chosen her to be the first person of color to appear on the nation’s currency (in 2028). But how much do we really know about Harriet Tubman? Many know her as a major force in the mid-1800s Underground Railroad, guiding dozens of slaves to freedom after fleeing herself for the safety of Pennsylvania. But did you know that, during the Civil War, she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition, a raid that freed more than 700 slaves?

Focus Features’ Harriet, opening on November 1, is the long-overdue biopic of Tubman, brought to life in a magnetic performance by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) in her first lead movie role. The film co-stars Hamilton Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. as abolitionist William Still; Janelle Monáe as free-born ally Marie Buchanon; Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) as Harriet’s young master, and country-music star Jennifer Nettles as his mother; Clarke Peters (“The Wire”) and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Harriet’s parents; and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Samuel Green, a real-life Maryland pastor who helped slaves escape.

Writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) has been working on the project since the 1990s, and producers Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg ultimately turned to Kasi Lemmons to direct the film and work on the screenplay. Lemmons’s debut feature, Eve’s Bayou (1997), is a landmark in African American cinema for its depiction of black Southern culture; it won the Independent Spirit Award and was selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. A former actress, probably best known for her roles in The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman, Lemmons has also directed The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me, and Black Nativity, and is a professor in the Graduate Film Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Lemmons spoke with Boxoffice Pro by phone about her journey with Harriet.

I learned so much about Harriet Tubman watching this film. I knew about the Underground Railroad, but there were so many other dimensions that I didn’t know. What did you learn that you didn’t know before?

I thought I knew about Harriet Tubman, but I did about seven months of pure research and I learned so many things. In terms of things that went into the movie that mattered to me, definitely the spirituality. That was really interesting. Just the strangeness of praying that her master would die, and he died. The thing that affected me the most deeply was that it really was a family story, and that’s one of the things I tried to bring out: her as a woman, but also as a daughter and a sister. When you read about a hero, you can disengage a little bit from their courage, but everybody can understand wanting to go back to your family. I wanted to show what people had to go through to be free—the horrible decisions of leaving people behind. That really resonated for me—who’s willing to do that and who’s not willing to do that.

I saw Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple on Broadway, and her performance gave me chills. I was surprised that you gave her the opportunity to sing in the film. Is that based on the real Harriet?

Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s how she communicated. That’s how she called the enslaved people, through song. It was like a coded message—because when the slave owners heard the slaves singing, they thought they were happy. They didn’t suspect that the music could signal an uprising or a call to freedom. It was the way enslaved people communicated—only certain people would understand the message.

Tell me about the rapport you had with Cynthia. She’s the key to the success of this film. What kind of a connection did you make?

It was and still is a very deep connection. We had to be that way. Our rapport was very important to us—it’s really how we got through it. We looked in each other’s eyes, we held each other’s hands, we really tried to invoke her together. We talked about it a lot, trying to channel her and access her so that other people could. It was actually the most profound experience I’ve ever had.

With Leslie Odom Jr. in the film, you’ve got two of the biggest recent Broadway stars in your movie. Did you find their stage discipline was an asset for you on this project?

I think of them as actors who just happen to also be able to star in Broadway shows and win Grammys. They’re just really talented people, but when they were on set, it was like directing any actor. All actors are a little bit different, depending on their training and their approach. To me, it’s all directing.

I have to believe that for both your black and white actors, it was uncomfortable in a lot of ways to be playing slaves and slave owners. How do you deal with that as a director?

Well, everybody understands why they’re there, and we rehearse so everyone is comfortable. You cast carefully—you choose people who are there for the right reasons and who are good people, And who are uncomfortable—they shouldn’t be too comfortable. So we just discuss it and try to give the characters as much backstory as possible, even the white slave owners, things that actors can relate to.

This is probably the biggest production you’ve ever done. What were the big challenges for you?

Just trying to get it all into our schedule and into our budget. And shooting outside, shooting in the woods at night, in the rain and dealing with the elements. The interesting thing about her journey is that she covered a lot of ground!

You have a great cinematographer on this project, John Toll [two-time Oscar winner for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall]. How did you land him for this film?

Well, it’s funny. We were at the Sundance Lab together. I’m a longtime Sundance adviser and John has done the Lab several times. I sat next to him and said, “So, John, what are you working on next?” And he said, “I don’t know.” “Do you think you want to do another big movie or a small movie?” He said, “You know, I think I might try a small movie.” And I said, “So, do you like Harriet Tubman?” The conversation kind of went like that. There was a screening of my movie Eve’s Bayou at Sundance and he watched it, and then he asked for a script.

Are you and Focus Features doing anything special to make sure this film reaches a young audience?

We certainly hope it does. I think that they are very actively trying to reach that audience. That’s very important to me. I made it for the audience and I made it to appeal to everyone, from 10-year-olds to their great-grandmothers.

Did you have that audience in mind as you were making it? Were there little touches you added to try to make sure it reached a young crowd?

The mission was to make something that could reach a wide audience. I wrote the role of Walter thinking of the younger audience. That character [a slave hunter turned liberator] is very important to me; he’s played by my son [Henry Hunter Hall]. One thing we were very conscious of was trying to make an adventure movie, trying to keep it exciting, Her life is inherently an adventure story, and we wanted to capture that.

I remember you in The Silence of the Lambs. Do you miss acting at all? Are you thinking of ever going back to it?

Not really. This is very fulfilling and keeps me absorbed. I spend most of my time as a writer and there’s something fulfilling about that, working from your imagination. It’s a different muscle. There’s something comforting about acting, and it would be a relaxing break from directing. But I like the gig that I have, which is being a professor and a writer and director.

It was nice to see your husband [Vondie Curtis-Hall] in the film. I’ve always liked his work. Is he kind of a good-luck charm for you?

Yeah, I enjoy him being in my movies. He’s dependably great, and he’s always good to have around. But I don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole—if there’s a part that’s right for him, then I’m interested and he’s interested. He read the script and did a lot of research about Reverend Green, and he decided he wanted to play that character.

I have to congratulate you on having Eve’s Bayou in the National Film Registry. What does that mean to you?

It meant so much—I have an absurd amount of excitement about it. It’s a film that’s very close to my heart. I was incredibly flattered and grateful for that honor.

How important to you is it that people see Harriet in theaters?

I very much believe in seeing films in theaters. There’s something so immersive about it; it really lets you go on an incredible journey with other people. We made this film for the audience and it plays wonderfully with a full audience. I very much hope people get to experience it that way.

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