*“Harriet” A powerful new movie about Harriet Tubman premieres this Friday, Nov. 1. Bring the kids! It is totally worth the overpriced dry popcorn. It will make you mad, leave you in tears and spoiler alert, the last battle scene will have you up on your feet.
Believe it or not, this is the first feature film on “Harriet” and it’s long overdue. We def need it to set the record straight particularly with folks like Kanye West making up fake Harriet quotes. Remember last year, Ye tweeted that she said “I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves” — not long after he described slavery as a choice on TMZ. Really Kanye?! We chose to be brutally whipped, raped, exploited, tortured, torn from our homeland, have our children and loved ones ripped from our bosom, sold like chattel and be routinely murdered with impunity? Boy bye!!!
Back to Harriet though.
Harriet is played by 32-year-old Chinasaokwu ‘Cynthia’ O. Erivo, a British actress, singer, and songwriter known for her performance as Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, for which she won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Singer/actress Janelle Monae kills it playing a free woman who becomes a close comrade and friend of Harriet.
Casting Cynthia has caused some controversy because she’s not African American. But I kinda think like ol’ skool reggae singer the late Peter Tosh, murdered three decades ago, who wrote: “don’t care where you come from, as long as you a black man you’re an African.” Hail to the diaspora. Yes, we have differences but we are all fam.
I chopped it up with the dope sister girl writer and director Kasi Lemmons, and producer Daniela Lundberg about casting Cynthia and the making of the movie.
Daniela: The script, originally written by Greg (Gregory Allen Howard) who wrote “Remember the Titans,” had been sitting at Disney for 20 years lying dormant. We couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a story about Harriet that had been brought to the screen yet and we loved the idea of the script which was the young Harriet Tubman as a really active revolutionary, a really exciting tale. So, we bought Cynthia Erivo on — you’ve seen her in the Color Purple. She is this little powerful badass (5’1 tall) who had the voice of an angel and we thought she was an incredible actor.
Kasi: When they talked about me actually rewriting and directing it, my heart started pounding and I realized that this was something very exciting and a little bit scary. And that that combination wasn’t an inappropriate reaction. If I wasn’t intimidated by it, I’d be crazy right—so then I was able to do about 6 to 7 months of pure research where I read every single major scholarly work on Harriet Tubman.
Daniela: It was really important to us that Harriet wasn’t this action hero but it was important for us that Harriet was a woman- that she loved, that she lost, that she had heartbreak and she went back down south because she missed her family so deeply
Jaz: Kasi directed her hubby actor Vondie Curtis Hall in the movie.
Kasi: This isn’t my first movie with Vondie so we’re very comfortable working and loving together. When I’m directing him, I just look at him as any other actor. Vondie is such a wonderful actor when I have a script and I think there’s a role that fits him, I’m like baby what role do you want? With Harriet he said I think I’m Reverend Reed and that sounded right to me too so he did a lot of research on that character –to do service to this real historic character who was extremely important to the Harriet Tubman story.
Jaz: Besides being mom to four children — her son is also in the film – and wifey, Kasi has been in the film industry for over two decades. How has she seen black film evolve?
Kasi: When I started working as a writer and director, I was a little bit of a unicorn. There were just a few of us and that was a kinda lonely feeling. I think we have reached success when we are behind the scenes and on camera and we have a variety of genres. When we have our comedies, horrors, adventures, love stories, family dramas, serious biopics and every type you can imagine I think we are reaching that place and that’s super exciting. Almost all the Black actors, directors and writers I know are working. I feel optimistic about the future. We’re not there yet especially with parity and pay disparity but we’re moving into a really powerful time that is the future and I don’t think that’s a trend that is going backward.
Jaz: Daniela says she wants Harriet to make a difference
Daniela: I’m hoping we entertain, inspire and activate young people who can look at this film and believe that they can make a change in their world, in their environment and they are able to be courageous and brave and have determination. Harriet is this wonderful character that we think of abstractly and I want to bring her into our lives so that she can light the way for a lot of young people.
Photo credits: Glen Wilson. Photo of Kasi Lemmons by Simon Frederick
Jaztalk’s Jazmyn Summers Follow me @jaztalk1 on Instagram, twitter and Facebook. Contact me: [email protected]