advertisement
advertisement

How director Kasi Lemmons found a ‘badass’ action hero, not slavery porn, in Harriet Tubman’s story

Harriet Tubman finally gets the mainstream biopic she deserves in ‘Harriet.’ Director Kasi Lemmons had a very specific (and perhaps controversial) vision in mind.

How director Kasi Lemmons found a ‘badass’ action hero, not slavery porn, in Harriet Tubman’s story
(Left to right) Director Kasi Lemmons with actors Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo, and Vanessa Bell Calloway on the set of Harriet. [Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features]

The little we have seen of the real-life Harriet Tubman doesn’t fully convey the breadth of her death-defying accomplishments.

advertisement
advertisement

All we have are a handful of still portraits, ones that have graced many a history book. They often portray Tubman in her later years, after she escaped from slavery and risked her life time and again to do the same for other slaves through the Underground Railroad. Her journeys were fraught with slave catchers on her trail, perilous miles trekked on foot by night, and even a secret identity.

Tubman’s early life, then, was essentially an action movie—and that’s exactly the treatment director Kasi Lemmons wanted for her Tubman biopic, Harriet.

“This is a woman who ran in terrible jeopardy and who chose to go back and carried a gun and was a complete badass,” Lemmons says. “In some ways, it’s a Western that takes place on the East Coast. That’s the way I saw it.”

Harriet stars Broadway star Cynthia Erivo in the title role and spans Tubman’s life as a runaway slave until just before the start of the Civil War. The film flashes forward to show Tubman as the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war but doesn’t go into great detail. Rather, Lemmons chose to focus on the decade before the war, because that’s when Tubman was running her missions through the Underground Railroad; that’s the part of her story that she’s most strongly associated with, yet it hasn’t been meaningfully portrayed, particularly in a mainstream movie.

“We don’t have an image of that incredible thing—that in that decade she went back and forth and rescued enslaved people and led them to freedom. I mean, that’s just incredible,” Lemmons says. “So what does that look like? What does that feel like? Where’s the heartbeat of that? Where’s the pulse?”

This is how Lemmons found the heartbeat of Harriet through Nina Simone, an abstract God, and avoiding “slavery porn.”

advertisement

Taking a break for Nina Simone

The film breaks from its score—composed by Terence Blanchard—only once: During a montage of Tubman freeing hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad, Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” plays in the background. It’s a bit of temporal dissonance, especially because there’s no other contemporary song in the film, but it was actually the necessary spark for Lemmons to frame Harriet:

“In some ways I started with ‘Sinnerman.’ I kept pitching [my son] this story—he was like a sounding board—and one day he said, listen to Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman.’ Of course, I’d heard it, but it was like listening to it for the first time. I started listening to it when I was writing, and I became so attached to it. It’s the movement of it and the crescendo of it and the soulfulness of it. I played it for Terence [Blanchard]. I played it for Warren [Alan Young], the production designer. I played it for [costume designer] Paul Tazewell, for producers, everybody that came on who I wanted to understand the film, I played them ‘Sinnerman.’ This is the way I wanted it to feel. I wanted it to be like a heart racing.”

What does a seizure look like?

One of the key elements of Tubman’s life were her documented seizures. Widely believed to be the result of a traumatic brain injury she suffered as a young girl, Tubman would often slip into one of her “spells” that would knock her unconscious. She said it was during those times where she would experience visions and revelations from God. Tubman credited those dreams and divine messages with guiding her on her dangerous missions, so Lemmons was tasked with finding a visual language to portray those moments.

“What does a seizure look like?” she says. “How do people describe seizures? I saw the word monochromatic a lot. I wanted it to be kind of shocking and piercing. There was also the decision of should we show it or hear it? Should we actually hear God’s voice? But what does God’s voice sound like? That could be a tricky thing. For a while I thought it was probably [Tubman’s] voice, and so we had actually recorded some stuff [with Erivo] at a certain point. But I thought to represent it visually would be interesting and that it needed a certain amount of deciphering. [The messages] sometimes weren’t absolutely clear.”

Avoiding the pitfalls of “slavery porn”

There’s always a delicate conversation to be had when Hollywood tackles the subject of slavery. On one hand, there’s merit in telling these stories for new generations and giving heroes like Tubman their rightful place in the annals of cinematic biopics. On the other, these films can run the risk of veering into exploitation—studios using black trauma as Oscar bait.

Tubman’s story, like that of any slave, is intrinsically tied to violence. But Harriet sidesteps the majority of it without the feeling of glossing over anything. Instead of seeing Tubman getting whipped or even the incident that led to her brain injury, we see the scars from those actions.

advertisement

“I made a decision early on because I wanted this to be a movie you could take a sophisticated 10-year-old to. He could see it with his grandmother, and they could both really enjoy it. To take Harriet away from young people, it didn’t feel right to me. I want young people to see it. Slavery porn doesn’t interest me. There are movies that have done violence and slavery very well. I like those movies. I like movies about traumatic points in history. But I’ve seen them. I knew that I wanted it not to be that. That was a controversial choice. People expect [Tubman’s story] to be very dark and perfectly serious. But I was trying to make an audience-friendly film. That was the challenge. How do you present a very complex story and still make it the story you want to tell? How do I put in as much history as possible, as much of the real woman as possible? How do I access her character spiritually, while making an audience-friendly genre movie? I think it was a really interesting experiment.”

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

More