You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why Kasi Lemmons Decided to Direct the First Biopic About Harriet Tubman

Kasi Lemmons’ new film, “Harriet,” depicts Harriet Tubman — the leader of the Underground Railroad and freer of slaves — as all that, but with an extra element. As played by Cynthia Erivo in an action-heavy role, she’s close to a superhero. And Lemmons intended it that way. “That was the mission,” she says. “Adventure and superheroism is inherent in the story — we didn’t want to impose it on the story. This young woman who was very small and very strong and very fast and very, very brave. That’s what we wanted to bring.”

This Harriet, in other words, looks less like the figure known from photographs taken nearer the end of life than like Erivo as the compact physical dynamo of “Widows.” The story moves fleetly, depicting both Tubman’s gift for evasion and the visions that spurred her on. “She’s kind of there and kind of not,” Lemmons says of the moments Tubman is gripped by a voice from beyond. “She has a fluid conversation [with God]; that’s the way she describes it. If you’re cynical and don’t believe that, you could say she has perfect instincts.”

Lemmons’ instincts for what will move audiences are as true; her 1997 directorial debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year and considered a key influence on the aesthetics of Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” was critically hailed in its moment and is now widely regarded as a modern classic. But Lemmons still struggles, she says, to pull together financing for movies; “Harriet” is only her fifth feature. “I think we’ve made a little progress” since the late 1990s, she says. “Still, it’s hard. If you’re interested in women and black people, and you’re interested in drama — those things, it’s still not a walk in the park.”

Those animating loves for story and character mean that Lemmons says no to projects often. “I turn so many things down,” she says. “Directing is very, very hard. I want the money to do it, but I can’t sell out because it’s too hard a job. I need the passion to give me the adrenaline; I need the passion to give me the energy, the perseverance and the physical strength. I have to be in love, and it has to feel like love.”

For Lemmons, that feeling is visceral as much as intellectual. When told about the planned Harriet Tubman project by producers, she says, “my heart started pounding. I was afraid and I was excited. It’s like the moment you realize you’re in love. You can be next to somebody or work with somebody and you think you’re friends, and then one day you can’t breathe. That happens to me with projects — all of a sudden I can’t stop thinking about it, or I’m thinking about it in my sleep, or I wake up thinking about it. That’s how I can tell.”

In making “Harriet,” that love manifested itself through the research, finding aspects of Tubman’s personality that matched Erivo’s energy, and vice versa. Lemmons (aided by Erivo, a fellow New Yorker) stays laser-focused on character even as the situations grow increasingly hectic. “I didn’t want it to be an adventure film where the hero happens to be Harriet Tubman,” she says. “I wanted it to be the Harriet Tubman story. And so really I wanted to find her and bring her and give it some authenticity.”

Lemmons’ own story has motivated plenty of people too. “I think things would be different if it came out now,” she says, recalling the launch of “Eve’s Bayou” at a less open time in Hollywood. “But I have blazed my own trail. I’m proud of my history in the industry and what I’ve done when I’ve not been as important to people. To make that film while having just had a baby, that became very important to a lot of women.” A professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lemmons sees what she has been able to accomplish as a lesson that transcends the classroom. “It was pretty difficult, but I wouldn’t trade it in because it has been instructive and inspiring to other filmmakers, you know? And I’m really about that. It’s very real — I’m really, really about that.” No wonder this director was ready to tell the story of a natural leader. 

More Film

  • In ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Edward Norton Takes

    In ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Edward Norton Takes on Timeless Power Struggles

    In Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” the ‘50s-set New York noir detective story he produced, directed, wrote and stars in, politics are never far from the surface. But they’re not the obvious parallels to any racist autocrats from New York of modern times, but instead focus on more timeless politics – the way disabled people and [...]

  • 'Joker' Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Wins at

    'Joker' Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Wins at EnergaCamerimage Film Festival

    “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s bid, along with director Todd Phillips, to try something “perhaps even a bit artful” won big Saturday in Torun, Poland as he took the top prize at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival. The Golden Frog for cinematography, along with the audience prize, went to his work filming Joaquin Phoenix in the [...]

  • Roberto Schaefer

    Netflix Image Enhancement Rules Take Cinematographers by Surprise

    A Netflix requirement that cinematographers capture films in HDR, or high dynamic range, has taken many by surprise, filmmakers say, but those at the 27th EnergaCamerimage festival in Poland seem increasingly accepting of the change. DP Roberto Schaefer, whose “Red Sea Diving Resort” screened at the cinematography fest in the historic city of Torun, said [...]

  • Lech Majewski and Josh Hartnett

    Lech Majewski on ‘Valley of the Gods,’ Navajo Mythology, Josh Hartnett, Keir Dullea

    TORUN, Poland – In his latest work, “The Valley of the Gods,” director Lech Majewski explores the ancient mythology of a downtrodden people and the absurd wealth of the world’s richest man in a surreal vision of modern America. The film screened at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival as part of special showcase honoring Majewski, [...]

  • The Red Sea Diving Resort

    Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer on Gideon Raff's Thriller ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’

    TORUN, Poland – While Gideon Raff’s Netflix thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort” shot largely in South Africa and Namibia, the project was a welcomed opportunity for cinematographer Roberto Schaefer due to his own memorable travels through Ethiopia. The film, which screened in the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival’s Contemporary World Cinema section, is loosely based [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content