This piece was originally published in November 2020.
“We thought this is a film about freedom; this is what everybody knows about Harriet Tubman. She escapes, she goes back, she liberates others. We really wanted that momentum, that exhilaration and what freedom means and that she was willing to die for it. And that’s a very powerful concept because I think there’s still people in this country who deny the resistance.”
That mission statement is at the heart of Harriet, a feature film depiction of the real-life hero Harriet Tubman directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, who paid a visit to The Academy with actor Cynthia Erivo, producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg, composer Terence Blanchard and costume designer Paul Tazewell, to discuss how this passion project came about. Lemmons found a connection to modern life in many aspects of the story; for example, “The cruelty of separation of families was one that I focused on, was very resonant for us and for me and it’s in the news and it’s something that was very much on my mind, and it’s the Harriet Tubman story. She was motivated. She was haunted by an image of her sisters being sold away… though Soph and Linah were her second and third sisters.” Tubman’s story also allowed her to explore some of the nuances and differences among the areas where slaves lived at the time: “There were different kinds of societies, and for this enslaved group of West Africans in the Chesapeake region, they lived right next to an intermarried free people, and I thought that was very interesting and also cruel.”
“For me,” Blanchard says, “working on this film was a real honor because it made me think about all of the shoulders we stand on, all of the people who have gone before us and that lineage goes directly to Harriet. For me, there were three elements of her: the strength of her resilience, her compassion and her conviction for her faith. And I wanted to make sure that something would be strong enough to show her strength but not be overpowering because that’s a sound that we associate with something else. So there was a delicate balance that I tried to find between all little things. I wanted to have a melody that was simple enough but yet singable enough to show that compassion. We enlisted the help of the pianist in my band, Fabian Almazan, to deal with all divisions and we allowed him to create some sonic palettes for those things. And really, it came down to Erivo’s performance.”
Tazewell also had to find the right way to express Harriet’s transformation over the course of the story, explaining, “My job as a costume designer is to make choices that are believable, that underscore what a character decides to put on for whatever task it is that is their day as… all of us do, and well, as I’m making those choices to figure out how they help the story to resonate in a poetic way, hopefully, or speak as powerfully as possible… You see how Harriet’s progression as she is emotionally maturing into who she becomes …resonates with the clothes as well.”
Erivo, who’s next embodying another legend with a biopic about Aretha Franklin, used her own process to build a cinematic Harriet from the scant material that exists abouther, namely photographs. That was enough, she felt, because “you can get quite a bit from a picture. I feel like you can get where a person holds their weight. If you take a close look at their face, you can map that and see where the lines lie, where the sadness is, if their lips are downturned, if they have a furrowed brow, all of that, you can find from a picture. And then a wonderful script helps to figure out the rhythm of the person because the way we speak is in a rhythm. Each person has an individual rhythm, and Kasi wrote beautiful rhythm for her which I followed. And it will tell you how patient she is at one point, how impatient she might be, how angry, how annoyed, whether she’s shocked, whether she’s not, whether in that wonderful section where she’s asked to pick her name, there is a pause because she’s not been asked that question before. And so she has to think about it, but that’s in the script. There’s so much in the research about the natural strength of her that means I have to make sure that I’m ready and strong enough to play her. So I had to put myself through training. I had to make sure that I was ready and willing to walk into 37-degree water and climb up the side of a cliff and run as much as I needed to because I did all those things, and I knew that I wanted to partake in the stunts. Kasi made me realize that I did all but one stunt [the bridge jump].”
“It was an amazing thing to be a part of,” Lemmons concludes, “because you can feel the love for Harriet’s story, from everybody that was involved in it… I will be willing to bet we all understand the significance of it in this time that we’re living in right now. And I would just want to say this because we were talking about the clothing. I was at a screening in New Orleans last night and when [Cynthia] came on screen with the hat and threw the shoes down, all the women in the crowd lost it!”
Watch the full discussion: