When Kasi Lemmons got the chance to direct the first feature-length biopic about Harriet Tubman, she faced a delicate challenge. “I really wanted to create a film that a sophisticated 10-year-old could see with his grandmother, which isn’t easy for a film that takes place during slavery,” she said. “And then I wanted to really be able to represent Harriet as accurately as I could, while still making an entertaining movie that would reach a broad audience.”
Tubman’s extraordinary tale has been iconic for generations: Her escape from slavery and ability to free hundreds of slaves forever changed the course of history. But Lemmons’ situation helps to explain why it took so long for Hollywood to finally recognize the life and accomplishments of a legendary American freedom fighter.
Since the 1978 Cicely Tyson miniseries “A Woman Called Moses,” film and TV projects on Tubman have been floating around. The most prominent among them was a planned HBO adaptation of historian Kate Clifford Larson’s 2004 book, “Bound for the Promised Land,” which Viola Davis was attached to star in and produce. It never happened. According to Davis, speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 2016: “The reason her life has not been honored, the reason people don’t know what she contributed, is because she’s a black woman. She was born a slave. If you look up the history of anyone who contributed to the country who were not white males, their contributions are always minimized.”
Recent films films about historic black figures, from “Hidden Figures” to Nate Parker’s divisive Nat Turner film “Birth of a Nation,” address this neglect by telling stories about real-life revolutionary African Americans that aren’t taught in history classes.
And now, more than 100 years after her death, the long wait for a Harriet Tubman biopic is over: Lemmons’ “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo, finally opens this week after years of development. The project came together in 2016 with MACRO superagent Charles D. King leading the charge, along with producers Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg. Prolific TV director Seith Mann was initially set to direct, from a screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard; after Mann exited the project, Lemmons took over about a year later, and rewrote the script.
“I think one thing that helped move our project forward was the determination of our producers, who had been with the project for a long time,” she said, name-checking Chase and Lundberg. “Daniela was so determined to get the movie made that she said if nobody stepped up to partner with us, she was going to finance it herself.”
Lundberg didn’t have to worry. With the core team and script in place, the project was pitched to Focus Features, who came on board in late 2018. The company was just coming off the success of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” another story about historic racism that managed to find its way to mainstream audiences. (The film grossed nearly $50 million domestically and won an Oscar for Lee’s screenplay.)
With “Harriet” on track for a wide release, Lemmons had to do her homework. Her primary sources were Tubman biographies, including the 1869 “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” which historians consider unreliable, and the aforementioned “Bound for the Promised Land,” but she also read academic papers on Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Additionally, she accessed first-hand accounts based on what she described as “a kind of one-woman show” that Tubman performed, during which she would entertain abolitionists with her story. In the process, Lemmons came closer to understanding the spiritual dimension of Tubman’s legacy.
“I’d heard of the premonitions she had, but I really wasn’t aware of how very accurate they were, which was all kind of mind-blowing to learn,” Lemmons said.
As a child, Tubman’s mother read her Bible stories. And while she never learned to read, she is said to have had an incredible memory, memorizing long passages of scripture that informed her oratory later in life. She pursued visions that she believed where planted in her by God, urging her to flee northward, as she led slaves to freedom.
Lemmons said she stuck to historical records about Tubman over folklore. But the movie is not without some dramatic embellishments, and some fictional characters. These include Gideon, Harriet’s young, conflicted slave owner (Joe Alwyn). Lemmons also plays loosely with some of the dates in the film, such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed much earlier than the film indicates.
But the movie’s realistic foundation comes from Erivo as its lead. “Like Harriet, who was tiny, muscular, fast, strong, fierce, and West African, Cynthia is also a tremendous force of nature,” Lemmons said. “Together, we really tried to invoke Harriet, with Cynthia preparing herself in every way you could possibly be prepared to play the role — physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. So by the time she showed up on set for the first day of filming, as soon as she put on the costume and we did the first take, it was like, oh my god, there she is. There’s Harriet.”
The movie was primarily shot in central Virginia, where the production team capitalized on a large collection of backlots from previous period productions of TV miniseries like “John Adams,” and films like “Lincoln.” Lemmons said that backdrop made for a particularly emotional shoot. “We shot on a plantation that was once home to something like a thousand slaves, and other places where enslaved people had lived, suffered and died for many, many years,” she said. “And so, yes, it was at times very tough, but also elevating in a way, because you come to see what we have to face as a country, if we’re going to heal.”
Tubman’s story has taken on new resonance in 2019, as the movie opens in a violently divided America in which Tubman’s own legacy continues to struggle for appreciation. In 2016, the Obama Administration announced that the $20 bill would be redesigned by 2020, removing the face of Andrew Jackson, a president who also owned slaves, and replacing it with anti-slavery activist Tubman’s.
However, the Trump administration continues to delay the move. Earlier this year, treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the final decision on a redesign of the bill had been postponed until 2026, with new bills coming out no earlier than 2028. Should it eventually happen, Tubman would be the first woman to feature on U.S. banknotes in over a century. The last time and only time this happened was when Martha Washington — George Washington’s wife — appeared on a $1 silver certificate, in the late 1800s.
Lemmons entertained the notion that the release of the movie implies that Tubman’s spirit continues to play a role in modern society. “Cynthia and I like to believe that it does very much seem like this is when Harriet would’ve wanted the film to happen,” Lemmons said. “The timing just couldn’t be better,”
Focus Features will release “Harriet” in theaters on Friday, November 1.