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Diversity Above- and Below-the-Line Was Essential for ‘Harriet’ Filmmakers

As Cynthia Erivo becomes a formidable Oscar contender for best actress and original song for her performance in the title role in “Harriet,” one thing remains clear: Diversity is good business. 

In recent years, Hollywood has seen “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther,” “Us” and “Crazy Rich Asians” all become box office successes. Focus Features’ “Harriet” — the story of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery to become a leader of the Underground Railroad and help others gain their freedom — may not be a blockbuster on the level of those other films, but it’s approaching $50 million at the domestic box office, not bad for a movie budgeted
at $17 million. 

Directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, Tubman’s story isn’t just about the fight for equality in front of the camera; it’s about championing diversity behind it too. As shown by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which has examined the extent of underrepresentation of gender, racial and ethnic status of leading characters across the top 1,200 films from 2007-18, more work needs to be done. 

Still, there has been an increase of late among African Americans both on camera and behind the scenes, and “Harriet” is one film that made strides to consciously hire a team with women and people of color. The film counts 13 people of color in top positions, including eight below the line, from casting director Kim Coleman to production designer Warren Alan Young. 

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Producer Debra Martin Chase, one of the five key above-the-line creatives, says it wasn’t hard to assemble the crew. “There’s definitely no shortage of people of color behind the scenes,” she observes. “People have to put forward the effort” to hire. Originally, Lemmons wanted to work with Ruth Carter on the costumes, but Carter was working on “Dolemite Is My Name.” “I called Ruth, who had done ‘Sparkle’ with me,” says Chase. “She said to get Paul” Tazewell, who had designed costumes for “Hamilton” on Broadway. “We found amazing people,” Chase adds. “It’s this example of what can be done when you approach it with the right intent.” 

Chase and Coleman had collaborated through the years, meeting on 2003 Disney Channel movie “The Cheetah Girls.” “She had just finished casting my ABC pilot [‘Get Christie Love’] and we went to her immediately,” says Chase of how the casting came together.

Similarly, Lemmons had worked with production designer Young and composer Terence Blanchard. 

Lemmons calls “Harriet” a “huge accomplishment,” not only for recruiting an African American crew but also in telling the story of an illiterate woman of color who was meant to spend her life on a plantation and who became a legend. 

Chase says the crew knew the score. “People wanted to work on a Harriet Tubman movie. People wanted to work with Kasi. People wanted to work with me,” she says. “Hollywood hasn’t been making films about black women, much less historical pieces about black women.”

Ultimately, the film’s below-the-line accomplishments fall in line with the spirit of Tubman’s achievement in helping others to rise up. “Diversity behind the camera is important because there are good jobs and great long-term careers that have historically not been available for the most part to people of color,” Chase says. “Everyone involved in making a movie is part of the storytelling process.” 

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