In director Kasi Lemmons’s biopic of Harriet Tubman, Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) is a woman who believes she has been possessed by God’s will. She can see into the future, using her psychic talents to guide her on her remarkable journey as a slave from Maryland to Pennsylvania freedom, and then back and forth again to rescue her family and others. As viewers get a glimpse of her powers, Tubman becomes an almost otherworldly figure.
This was intentional on Lemmons’s part. A Harriet Tubman movie has been in the making for far too long, at one point with Viola Davis set to star and produce. But when Lemmons signed on, she knew she wanted to tell Tubman’s story as an adventure with a Joan of Arc-type figure. Harriet is less than a long-awaited straight biopic of an American hero than a supernatural study of her tireless work on the Underground Railroad and how Tubman earned her nickname “Moses” as a God-guided prophet leading people out of slavery.
Director and co-writer Lemmons talked to Jezebel about her research for the film, why she focused heavily on Tubman’s visions, and humanizing a historical figure all too often abstracted.
JEZEBEL: Why do you think it’s taken so long for there to be a proper biopic of Harriet Tubman?
KASI LEMMONS: I think that people have been talking about it for a very long time. Many people have tried. I think that it’s been hard to have a black female protagonist in a drama, not to mention a period drama. Why don’t we have more female protagonists? Because it’s been a man’s world; it’s been a white man’s world. This is a no-brainer of a subject, and she’s a phenomenal subject.
When you came into the project, it had kind of been circulating for a while. By the time you came on, did you feel like you immediately had a clear vision of what you wanted to do with her story?
Yeah, and I understood the vision, which was to make a movie that a broad audience could see and that would be inspirational. I thought her story lends itself to that so beautifully; it’s kind of this adventure story, and she was an action hero. What was very important to me was if I was gonna do it, I was gonna do the Harriet Tubman story. It wasn’t just coincidental. I did a lot of research on who she was, and I just tried to bring in as much of the specifics of her story as possible.
What sort of research were you doing?
I read every major biography and every major academic work. I read everything, not just on Harriet, but on the Underground Railroad. I also read, which was very important, slave narratives which really informed some of the dialogue and also just gave me incredible perspective. I’ve read lots of them before, especially during the Civil War. But pre-civil war, how people were speaking of their experience, was really important. William Still is this wealth [of material] because he interviewed everybody who came through Philadelphia.
Was there anything you found in your research that really kind of stuck with you?
The things that were most surprising had to do with this particular community of enslaved West Africans and how that was different from the kind of the general image that we have of slaves in the field picking cotton down south. This is in Maryland and there are free people living next to and intermarrying with enslaved people. In the laws of manumission, there were term slaves, and there were life slaves; if you were term slave, at a certain point you’re supposed to be free. Harriet actually hired a lawyer to try and prove that her mother [should be free] because her mother told her she was supposed to be free once she was 45, and she found the will of her master’s great grandfather. I thought that was interesting, just how long they had been in this family and how the slaves had passed through this family. And then I’ve got to say, I did not really understand how crucial the visions were to the Harriet Tubman story.
That’s such a big part of your film, and I’m curious why was it important to you to show in the film, because it’s very literal, it seems like there isn’t supposed to be any doubt in the viewer that she’s having these visions.
I had to take a position, so I took her position. That was the way her contemporaries talked about it. They said, I don’t know if I believe, but I’m certain she believes it. We can’t explain how well she was able to do these things, so in looking at what everybody said, I decided she was certain that she believed it. I was telling her story, and I was in her point of view. There was absolute certainty that there was a personal conversation going on and God was sending her visions. And she said, and when God is done with me, he’ll let them take me. She really thought that she was on a directed mission. It was a Joan of Arc story.
When you’re focusing on taking her side, as you said, and making this as an adventure story about Harriet Tubman, how did you find a balance between portraying her as this kind of Joan of Arc figure, but also a woman with her own weaknesses and humanity?
What I thought I could help bring, as a woman, was really getting next to her heartbreak and pain. I think women—and black women, certainly—but women have a way of getting stronger through pain sometimes. It kind of brings the us out in us, you know, as adversity does in humans. I thought that that’s really important—that she not be abstract, that she feel like a real woman because these things happen to her. She had deep sadness and despair and, somehow in my mind, it strengthened her.
I think you certainly see that in many parts of the movie. But I felt it especially when Harriet comes back to bring her husband to Pennsylvania and he’s taken another wife.
She said she howled. And you can imagine having come all that way to then find that out. It’s a specific hurt. It’s not just heartbreak of like, you know, your husband says, “I’m going to divorce you.” She had travelled to get him and put herself through the danger she put herself through in order to rescue him. I also thought about John [Tubman] a lot. She left him, that’s one thing we know. Harriett went alone. He must have loved her to be a free man and marry an enslaved woman, knowing that any children they had would be born enslaved. I could sympathize with him, too, so I wanted to bring his side in as well.
And you see that as well with her sister, those kind of sacrifices, when Harriett comes back for her and she says she can’t leave because of her children and says, “We can’t all do this.”
That was a very important line for me, actually. I think it was an important thing to say because it was true. I wanted to speak specifically to the sacrifices that people made to stay together or to decide to run. Rachel wouldn’t leave her children who had been hidden from her to keep her in line. Slave owners liked the enslaved people to have children because they feel they could be better control. They would be less likely to escape because people wouldn’t want to leave their children. It’s hard to run with children and there was so much danger because the repercussions were so horrible. If they were caught, they would be tortured, dismembered, sometimes hung in cages, too, as a warning to others. These are the kind of choices that people had to make, and I was very haunted by that.