Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, has never been the subject of a movie, until now.
Tubman was born a slave but escaped to freedom, dodging slave hunters while traversing 100 treacherous miles by herself. Then she did the unthinkable: She returned south to her home and started bringing family members and then strangers to freedom with her.
She managed to bring 70 slaves safely to freedom over the years and never had a single one captured.
So why no movie about this larger-than-life figure?
“When you think about it, it’s hard to get dramas made, it’s hard to get black movies made, it’s hard to get movies made with a female protagonist,” says Kasi Lemmons. “So imagine how hard it is to get a historical drama made with a black female protagonist.”
Lemmons, 58, is the director of “Harriet,” the first movie to tell Tubman’s story. It opens in theaters Friday.
After working as an actress — she played Jodie Foster’s roommate in “The Silence of the Lambs” — Lemmons turned to directing. Her highly praised debut “Eve’s Bayou” was followed by such films as “The Caveman’s Valentine” and the holiday film “Black Nativity,” which was based on a play by Langston Hughes.
Still, when she was approached by a producer about a movie version of Tubman’s life, she thought they just wanted her to rewrite the script. It was only as the conversation evolved that she realized she would direct it, too.
Lemmons — a native of St. Louis who lived here until she was 8 — jumped at the chance.
“It’s a film about resistance, which is incredibly important. It’s a film about freedom and what one person is willing to sacrifice for freedom. She is willing to die for it, and she is willing to die for others to have it,” Lemmons says.
“It really is about inspiring people with what this one person is able to do strictly through sheer force of will, through determination and courage. She had fear, but her courage outweighed her fear.”
The film stars Cynthia Erivo, an English actress best known as one of the widows-turned-robber in “Widows.” That movie was still being filmed when “Harriet” was in pre-production, and Lemmons was unfamiliar with her work when the producer showed her a picture of Erivo and suggested her as a possible Tubman.
“I looked at the photograph and said, ‘Oh, this could work,’” Lemmons says.
Lemmons and Erivo had a meeting of minds during an hourslong meeting at the Russian Tea Room restaurant in New York and discovered not only that they were compatible but also that they had similar ideas about the project.
There was one more thing: Erivo is an excellent singer. Several of her songs have appeared on albums, including soundtrack albums. She even won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple.”
The role of Tubman required a singer because Tubman would call out to slaves who wanted to escape by singing “Go Down, Moses.” Slaves recognized the song as a signal, but the slave owners did not understand its hidden message.
Another actor in the film is a familiar face, especially to Lemmons. Vondie Curtis-Hall, of “Chicago Hope” and scores of other television series and movies, has been married to Lemmons since 1995; they have four children.
“Vondie has been in all but one of my movies. He’s never been the main lead. With Vondie, I just trust him so much I just give him the script and say, ‘Is there anything in this that you relate to, that you want to play?’” Lemmons says.
In “Harriet,” he plays a Maryland preacher who helps sneak slaves to freedom.
The film was shot in Virginia, which shocked Lemmons with its extreme changes in temperature. During filming of a scene in which Tubman fords a river, it was a bone-chilling 38 degrees. Erivo spent the shot in water up to her neck.
But even the discomfort of that scene did not compare to another night.
“We were in bad weather a lot, in the woods, in the rain and the mud. Even on a good night, woods are not necessarily friendly places,” Lemmons says.
“There is a scene in the movie where the freedom seekers are running through the woods at dusk. Right after I said ‘cut,’ they ran into a hive of ground hornets that flew up into their costumes, and everybody got stung. And then they flew into the crew, and lots of people got stung,” Lemmons says. She was stung on the chin.
“We had to stop and take some people to the hospital,” she says.
"It's hard to get dramas made, it's hard to get black movies made, it's hard to get movies made with a female protagonist. So imagine how hard it is to get a historical drama made with a black female protagonist."