Director Kasi Lemmons on “Harriet”: The Obstacles, Harriet Tubman’s Faith, and the Film’s Impact

The Wait is Over for a Harriet Tubman Movie

harrietThe thrilling story and inspirational life of the iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, hits theatres on November 1st in HARRIET. Team Jesus Magazine publisher, Kim Brightness, recently spoke with HARRIET Director, Kasi Lemmons, in the Locker Room to learn more about her creative direction, Harriet Tubman’s faith, and the impact such a long-awaited film will have on viewers.

The Obstacles, Harriet’s Faith, and Film Impact

Brightness:
Amazing film, Kasi! Congratulations on being part of the creative team that finally brought Harriet Tubman to life in a major film. Tell us about the obstacles you encountered while making the film, and how did you overcome them?

Lemmons:

kasi lemmons
Kasi Lemmons via Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Well, the budget. We worked with it and we were able to get it done. But, for a long time that was the obstacle. Just trying to tell this big story with a lot of inherent movement in it. We had to do it in an achievable way. But, it wasn’t an obstacle that stopped us. We were able to get the support from Focus Features and do the movie.

Another obstacle was the weather. It happened to be very, very rainy that fall in Virginia. We were often up to our ankles in damp, cold mud in the woods. Those kinds of elements.

Brightness:
Sounds like a messy, fun time.

Lemmons:
Yeah, yeah, messy times {chuckle}.

Brightness:
Well, we’re glad you overcame those obstacles – otherwise, we would not have been able to see Harriet cross into Pennsylvania. I mean, you could visually feel heaven and earth cheering her on. Tell us about your creative direction behind that pivotal moment.

Lemmons:
You know, the interesting thing you say, ‘heaven and earth cheering her on’, but that’s literally what happened. When we came to work that day, there was pouring rain, the sky was black and it stayed completely dreary all day. So as the director, of course, you’ve carefully planned where you’re going to shoot and what time you need to be someplace, and we really thought we weren’t going to get the shot.

kasi lemmons harriet movie
Peter Kujawski, Chairman of Focus Features, Robert Walak, President of Focus Features, Mitchell Hoog, Nick Basta, Joe Alwyn, Daniela Taplin, Producer, Leslie Odom Jr., Henry Hunter Hall, Jennifer Nettles, Debra Martin Chase, Producer, Zackary Momoh, Omar J. Dorsey, Kasi Lemmons, Director/Writer, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Jason Cassidy, President of Marketing at Focus Features

It was a hard day. We had been through five costume changes, and back and forth in hair and makeup. We were starting to get to the point where it was late and we were gonna miss the time of day that we needed to shoot in. Everybody was saying, ‘okay, maybe we should just cut our losses, we’re not going to get this scene.’

Brightness:
Now, that had to be frustrating.

Lemmons:

kasi lemmons cynthia erivo
Kasi Lemmons & Cynthia Erivo via Rachel Luna/Getty Images

And it was our last day at that location. We would never have another chance. So I called hair and makeup and said, ‘I really need you guys to cooperate with me and get her (Cynthia Erivo, who plays Harriet Tubman) to the top of the hill as quickly as you possibly can.’

I’m like, ‘I know it’s been a really hard day, come on you guys, we can do this.’ The mud was so that you couldn’t get a lot of trucks up there, but thank God we had left the crane up there.

So just as Cynthia shows up at that moment, the clouds part and there’s this beautiful sunrise and a double rainbow is behind us! We did one take of that shot and the entire crew burst into tears. It was amazing! It was one of the most extraordinary, magical moments of my life.

Brightness:
Wow, and it came through on film, Kasi. That double rainbow is a great segue into Harriet’s faith. This film is not dubbed as a “faith film”, but it was very heavy-handed in demonstrating Harriet’s faith in God. Why was that important and have you experienced any backlash for that?

Lemmons:
Well, I knew that just taking on this subject matter, it was going to invite criticism – a lot of people to say a lot of things. However, I did so much research as I delved into the story that I realized that it was an exceedingly important part of it and that I couldn’t actually do the story without that element of Harriet’s faith. It would be dishonest to do the story without that element. I was gonna have to find a way to take it on, even though, frankly, I found it a little intimidating, too.

But I also found it intriguing, because, you know, it’s kind of my language. So when I realized that this mysticism was extremely important to her, and it’s what she said happened in her own words, I said ok, I’m going to take her point of view, present it, and take her word for it.

And this is the way I’m going to present it and so I don’t really care about the criticism – if it’s too much… write your own story {laughter}.

Brightness:
{laughter} I hear you. The presentation of her faith came through beautifully – not too overbearing but like her testimony. It was like watching a visual of Harriet’s testimony. She believed that God guided her through every trial.

Lemmons:
That’s what she believed.

Brightness:
And oh the trials and struggles she faced!

Lemmons:
Yeah, exactly! And, her friends that were her contemporaries said, ‘You know, we may not believe it, but she believes it so concretely. We can’t explain how she was able to do the things that she was able to do – not without taking her at her word.

Brightness:
Awesome. Well, Kasi, before we wrap up, tell us what impact you hope Harriet has – on America especially – but even the world?

Lemmons:
I think that we really have to be willing to face our past in order to deal with our present – where we are and how we got here… What our country’s going through now – we have to understand the struggles of people and the resistance (that would be the Underground Railroad) … While certain elements of our country want to pretend that it wasn’t what it was, many people were ready to die to be free.

Hearing Harriet’s statements, as she said many times and very eloquently, ‘I figure I have the right to one of two things – Liberty or death – and if I couldn’t have one, I’d have the other.’ Here is a woman who’s willing to die to be free, and willing to risk her life so that others can be free – that’s a really, really important message. It’s very inspiring, very American, and fundamentally human nature. We all want to be free.

Don’t miss the opening weekend of Harriet, in theatres everywhere Friday, November 1st!

 

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