The 'Superhero Journey' Of Harriet Tubman, Now On Film

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 1, 2019 1:28 pm

Harriet Tubman is an American figure whose story is so incredible, it's still almost hard to believe that it's true. After escaping slavery, she made numerous trips to save those still enslaved.

The new movie Harriet examines the life of this extraordinary figure through something like a superhero origin story.

"Yes, it's a superhero journey, you know, and it's a real-life superheroine," says director Kasi Lemmons. "But also just to give you access to her so you feel like you had lunch with her and you feel like you can get next to who she was."

In an interview, Lemmons spoke about why she was drawn to making a movie about Harriet Tubman.

"I mean, she was incredibly strong," Lemmons says. "She was incredibly tiny. And that became very important to me, you know, that this very small, very strong, very fierce woman was really doing this work in incredibly turbulent times. ... The physicality involved in just the act of escaping or the act of running: It was a man's world, and I think that just being a tiny, illiterate black woman in a man's world — that was an incredible image for me."


Interview Highlights

Harriet director Kasi Lemmons at NPR headquarters.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

On the divine guidance that Harriet Tubman claimed

Lemmons: She definitely said that there was a higher power involved, and that she was guided — I mean, she was very, very, very clear on it, and her premonitions were incredibly accurate.

King: Harriet Tubman truly believed that she was in communication with God. People around her seemed to be convinced as well.

Lemmons: And even her abolitionist friends, you know, they would say: Well, I don't know if I believe it, but I'm certain she believes it, and we can't describe how she's able to survive.

King: Do you think she was talking to God?

Lemmons: At this point I must say I do. I know Harriet very well — I've come to know her very well — and she was so incredibly clear about it. She became very good friends with John Brown. He had great admiration for her and was really counting on her joining him at Harpers Ferry, which she had said she would do. And then she had a vision that he was going to be cut down ... and she didn't meet him.

On balancing "womanhood" and "superhero" elements

I really wanted to bring real Harriet Tubman, who she was as a woman, and who I think she was as a person, and actual words that she said, and her actual family and their actual story — which I thought was fascinating. I don't want to rob her of either her womanhood or her superheroism, because we need our black women superheroes ... she was that badass and, you know, I think that's extremely important.

On the criticism around casting a black British woman (Cynthia Erivo) as a black American historical figure

There's a level at which I understand it. There's been an argument that's gone back to the Harlem Renaissance about culture bearing, and who is the best to bear that culture. I consider myself a major culture bearer on this movie. This is a film about Harriet that is co-written and directed by an African-American woman. Our job in making a film ... with a character that's this important is to find the very best person – the very best person to play that part. And in Cynthia, the physical resemblances are very strong. But more than that, she is absolutely a brilliant actor. So my job is to bring the most believable person to play the role so that you look at it, and when future generations look at it, you will see a petite, strong, fierce, young, West African black woman playing a petite, strong, young, West African woman.

On lessons from the 1800s that can be applied now

Honestly, our country's so polarized. I mean that's been clear for a long time. We just haven't dealt with our history. It ... causes a lot of people despair, and they don't really know what to do about it. So in some ways, this movie is an offering to alleviate despair — to remember what one person was able to accomplish in incredibly turbulent times and against all odds, just through sheer force of will and, you know, courage. ....

She was down for the fight. You know my favorite quote of hers is: "I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight. And that's what I prayed for ever since." ["I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that's what I've always prayed for ever since."] And we have to really pray to be strong enough to fight, because we're going to have to fight. We're going to have to fight for our country. We're going to have to fight for our planet. You know, we're going to have to fight for our children's future. We have to have the courage and the strength and the force of will and the belief and the optimism, frankly, to fight for the future. Keep going, you know, don't stop, keep going. We're not there yet. Keep going.

Sydney Harper and Catherine Whelan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Harriet Tubman was an American with a story that's almost hard to believe. Born Araminta Ross in Maryland, Tubman escaped slavery and then returned to the South several times to save others still enslaved. The new movie "Harriet" examines this life. Director Kasi Lemmons wanted to give audiences more than just a biopic. This film borrows from a popular, newer format - the superhero origin story.

KASI LEMMONS: Yes, it's a superhero journey, you know, and that's a real-life superheroine. But also just to give you access to her so you feel like you had lunch with her and like you feel like you can get next to who she was.

INSKEEP: Kasi Lemmons sat down with Noel King to talk about the way she viewed this American.

LEMMONS: I mean, she was incredibly strong. She was incredibly tiny. And that was - that became very important me, you know, that this very small, very strong, very fierce woman was really doing this work in incredibly turbulent times. It's amazing what she was able to do.

NOEL KING, HOST:

What about her smallness stuck in your mind?

LEMMONS: The physicality involved in just the act of escaping, in the act of running. It was a man's world. And I think that just being a tiny, illiterate black woman in a man's world, that was an incredible image for me.

KING: There are these moments where that is brought to her attention by people - mentors, colleagues - who work for the Underground Railroad, where they basically say to her face, you are not capable of doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HARRIET")

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As William Still) Rescuing slaves requires skill and careful planning. It requires reading, Harriet. Can you read a sign or a map? Can you read at all?

CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Harriet Tubman) I put my attention on trying to hear God's voice more clearly.

ODOM: (As William Still) Do you know what would happen if you got caught? They would torture you until you pointed them right to this office. You got lucky, Harriet. And there's nothing more you can do.

ERIVO: (As Harriet Tubman) Don't you tell me what I can't do. I made it this far on my own. God was watching, but my feet was my own. Running, bleeding, climbing, nearly drowned - nothing to eat for days and days, but I made it. So don't you tell me what I can't do.

KING: It hits home so hard, how there were no maps. So much of what she seemed to be able to do seems almost supernatural.

LEMMONS: She definitely said that there was a higher power involved and that she was guided. I mean, she was very, very, very clear on it. And her premonitions were incredibly accurate.

KING: Harriet Tubman truly believed that she was in communication with God. People around her seemed to be convinced as well.

LEMMONS: And even her abolitionist friends, you know, they would say, well, I don't know if I believe it, but I'm certain she believes it. And we can't describe how she's able to survive.

KING: Do you think she was talking to God?

LEMMONS: At this point, I must say I do. I know Harriet very well, I've come to know her very well. And she was so incredibly clear about it. She became very good friends with John Brown. He had great admiration for her and was really counting on her joining him at Harpers Ferry, which she had said she would do. And then she had a vision that he was going to be cut down...

KING: No, oh, my God.

LEMMONS: And she didn't meet him.

KING: I had no idea. So many of us know her from our middle school textbooks, but really that was it. And if someone told you this story, you would think that this was fiction.

LEMMONS: I really wanted to bring real Harriet Tubman, who she was as a woman, and who I think she was as a person, and actual words that she said, and her actual family and their actual story - which I thought was fascinating. I don't want to rob her of either her womanhood or her superheroism because we need our black women superheroes. You know, we need our women superheroes.

KING: Especially the ones who were real people (laughter).

LEMMONS: Right, exactly. Exactly. No, she was that bad ass and, you know, I think that's extremely important.

KING: The casting in this movie sparked a little bit of a dust-up. Harriet is played by a black British woman, Cynthia Erivo. But when the casting was announced some people said, but Harriet is an American hero. You can't have a British woman playing an American hero. How do you respond to that? Is any of that fair?

LEMMONS: I mean, I think, yeah, there's a level at which I understand it. There's been an argument that's gone back to the Harlem Renaissance about culture bearing and who is the best to bear that culture. I consider myself a major culture bearer on this movie.

This is a film about Harriet that is co-written and directed by an African American woman. Our job in making a film, with a character that's this important, is to find the very best person - the very best person to play that part. And in Cynthia, the physical resemblances are very strong. But more than that, she is absolutely a brilliant actor.

You know, so my job is to bring the most believable person to play the role so that you look at it, and when future generations look at it, you will see a petite, strong, fierce, young, West African black woman playing a petite, strong, young, West African woman.

KING: When you're making a film about a black woman hero who lived in the 1800s and it's 2017, '18, '19, does your mind draw parallels?

LEMMONS: Oh, of course.

KING: It does. OK, tell me about the parallels. Tell me how this time made you think about that time.

LEMMONS: Honestly, our country so polarized. I mean, that's been clear for a long time. And we just haven't dealt with our history. It can - causes a lot of people despair, and they don't really know what to do about it. So in some ways, this movie is an offering to alleviate despair, to remember what one person was able to accomplish in incredibly turbulent times.

She was down for the fight, you know. My favorite quote of hers is, I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight, and that's what I've prayed for ever since. And we have to really pray to be strong enough to fight because we're going to have to fight. We're going to have to fight for our country. We're going to have to fight for our planet. You know, we're going to have to fight for our children's future.

We have to have the courage and the strength and the force of will and the belief and the optimism, frankly, to fight for the future. Keep going, you know, don't stop. Keep going. We're not there yet. Keep going.

KING: Kasi Lemmons, co-writer and director of "Harriet." Thank you so much for coming into the studio. We really appreciate it. It's been a pleasure.

LEMMONS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Freedom, freedom. I can't move. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.