Harriet is, in the year 2019, the first theatrical feature about Harriet Tubman. But the biopic, which stars Tony winner Cynthia Erivo in the title role and co-stars Janelle Monáe and Leslie Odom Jr. as fellow abolitionists Marie Buchanon and William Still, isn’t just an achievement by dint of being grossly overdue. Coming from writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me)—it’s an unmistakably auteurist vision from a filmmaker who found her own spiritual practices fascinatingly reflected in Tubman’s.
Part costume drama and part superhero story, Harriet is the rare period film outside of the Christian movie industry to fully engage with faith as the primary force in one’s life and ideology. Lemmons spoke to Slate about Tubman’s God-given “Spidey sense” as well as the controversy in some corners of the internet over the casting of a Nigerian-British actress as the storied Underground Railroad conductor.
Slate: Most depictions of Harriet Tubman, like the one that probably would’ve been on the $20 bill, are of an elderly woman, with a stern face and her hair tied back. By telling the story of her as a young woman, you got to basically create her visually. What did you want to convey with a younger Harriet Tubman and her outfits, some of which are quite sensuous and some of which involve gender play?
Kasi Lemmons: She role-played in disguises, so sometimes she’d be disguised as a man, sometimes she’d be disguised as an old woman. I was definitely trying to capture a little bit of her chameleonic quality, but I really wanted you to see the young woman, because she was in her mid-to-late 20s to her mid-to-late 30s when she was doing a lot of her mission work in the decade before the Civil War. I wanted you to experience the young woman, because I thought it was very motivating and exciting.
Cynthia and I talked a lot about her face, and we studied her face, looking in her eyes and the downturn of her mouth and thinking of how she got there, because her friends described her as a very warm person who had a lot of joy and warmth. I really wanted you to feel like you’d had lunch with her. I wanted you to feel this incredible hero as completely accessible.
After Cynthia was cast, did you change any part of the script in order to play to her strengths?
No, because she was perfect for the role. They had brought on Cynthia before I came on, and I didn’t meet Cynthia until I had done a ton of research because she was doing Bad Times at the El Royale. I had this picture of Harriet that was very, very vivid, like she was sitting next to me. Then I met Cynthia and I’m like, “OK, tiny, strong, fast, can sing, fierce.” She was just perfect for the role.
There were some criticisms about Cynthia’s casting because she isn’t a black American. What do you think of those criticisms?
Well, I understand them. But what I would say to that is: I’m a filmmaker. It’s such an important story, and you’re looking for excellence, and you’re looking for somebody that’s going to inhabit the role. But what I’m creating is a piece of art, OK? Moviemaking is full of illusions. What I want you to see and what you see when you look at this movie is a small, formidable, brown-skinned black woman who, by the way, has recent ancestors that are West African. Harriet was two generations from West Africa, OK? This was beautiful casting, all right?
I understand the importance of culture bearing and who gets to bear culture. I look at this movie, and I’m the culture bearer, OK? I feel a little bit emotional about this. I’m an African American woman telling the Harriet Tubman story. This is a film produced by two women, one of whom is African American, written by African American writers, directed by an African American woman, with an African American costume designer, African American production designer, African American composer. This is a triumph, OK? I think they’re not seeing the forest for the damn trees.
Why was it important for you to have a black slave catcher in the story?
I wanted you to see that this was a corrupting empire, this empire of slavery. It corrupted everybody. It wasn’t just that the good guys were black, but that there were gray areas of people. In fact, there were people that were incredibly heroic in one situation that then could be bought by the other side and turn in the people they had rescued. It was very complex, and I wanted to express that.
The aspect of the movie that really struck me the most is the approach to faith. A lot of period dramas tend to underplay the role of faith and religion in history, even though it was the overwhelming lens through which people in the past saw the world. What role did faith play in your creation of Harriet?
I did about six or seven months of pure research, and it became clear that that was a huge part of the story. One of the things that makes us human beings is belief, and hers was so strong. But my favorite thing about it was it didn’t have to do so much with religious structure. It was a personal relationship that she was having.
She was driven and fortified by a belief that this was God’s work, and when God was ready for her to stop doing that work, he would let them take her. That’s what she said. God told her which way to turn, and God showed her the way. They were on a path, and all of a sudden God tells her: “No, don’t go that way. Turn left.” She turns left and approaches a body of water and says, “Now what?” And God says, “Go straight on.” So she walks across, not knowing how deep it is and not knowing if she’ll live or die, but her faith was so strong.
Do you believe that about her?
I took her word for it, because I had to choose a point of view as a filmmaker. However, my way of showing another point of view is when William Still writes [of her medical history] “possible brain damage”—that’s another way of looking at that. She had seizures. She had been hit in the head very, very hard when she was about 13, and her skull cracked open. Other people could look at her and maybe see something else, but she was a mystic, and I took her word for it.
There’s no other way to explain certain things. If I had to find one—my kids and I played a game when they were growing up where we would talk about, if you could have any superpower, what would it be? I would always say perfect instincts. At the very least, she had perfect instincts.
The phrase that came to mind to describe her powers watching the movie was “Spidey sense.” Did Harriet Tubman have a name for her power, and did you have a name for her power?
I call it a “Spidey sense.”
Do you really?
Oh, yeah. She said, “When trouble’s coming, I feel a flutter in my chest,” so sometimes she called it a flutter, but she had pronounced visions. I’ll tell you an interesting story. Harriet Tubman was good friends with John Brown, and this is after our story takes place, but they were very close for a period of time, and he tried to get her to go to Harpers Ferry [where the abolitionist organized a failed slave revolt in 1859]. It was very important to him that she be there, but she had a vision just before she was supposed to leave that he would be cut down. So she never showed up at Harpers Ferry.
Two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Harriet was at the home of an abolitionist friend, and she woke up from a vision and said, “My people are free.” The abolitionist friend was like, “I‘m afraid not in our lifetime.” Harriet said, “No, God showed me a vision.” Then the Emancipation Proclamation happens, and there are celebrations everywhere. She’s at this camp in South Carolina, and the officers ask her, “Why didn’t you celebrate?” She said, “I did my celebrating two years ago when God told me in my dream.” It was so cut and dried for her.
Your first film, Eve’s Bayou, also features a clairvoyant woman. Is that a coincidence, or is that something you’re personally interested in?
It‘s something I‘m personally interested in. Eve’s Bayou was inspired a lot by my family, and that kind of thing exists in my family.
What do you mean by that?
I had an aunt who is a spiritual counselor like the character Mozelle. Some of the situations that happen in the movie were things that had happened to my aunt, who is extraordinarily clairvoyant. So I grew up thinking that this was normal. It comes through in my art, but not all the time. I’ve made movies that have nothing to do with that, but Harriet lends itself to that. I didn’t even know how much until I did the research, and then I’m like, “I was meant to tell this story.”
Do you ever feel like you yourself are clairvoyant?
Are you interested in depicting black faith traditions on screen?
If I didn‘t go into movies, there’s an alter ego of mine that’s a theologian. I’m very into it.
I’m not religious. I was brought up religious, but I left church at 8. I always say church can interfere with the personal conversation that I’m having sometimes, because other people are shouting at me and I can’t focus. What I loved about doing the research on Harriet, like I said, is it didn’t have religiosity. It was just faith.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.