Harriet Tubman is a figure who is well-known but poorly understood. She’s as heroic as American heroes come — an iconic abolitionist and activist who escaped slavery and dedicated her life to helping others escape it as well.
That much, many people know.
But the rest her story is fascinating, as told in Harriet, the upcoming biopic starring Cynthia Erivo and featuring Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr. And for many people, it will be the first time they learn the details of why Tubman is such a unique, vital figure in the history of American abolitionism.
RELEVANT sat down with director Kasi Lemmons to discuss the difficulties of getting Harriet off the ground and how vital it was to depict Tubman’s unique spiritual life onscreen.
[Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
It surprises me in some ways how rarely Harriet Tubman’s story is told. She’s a well-known historical figure whose life really lends itself to a biopic. Now having done it, why do you think it hasn’t been adapted more?
People have tried. There have been many projects that were very worthy that tried. I’ve got to say, just being in show business for years, it’s hard to get projects off the ground with a black female protagonist. That’s just not an easy thing to do. But people have tried.
Why do you think this project was able to get off the ground when so many others weren’t?
The producers had a really good approach which was very viable. We wanted to make an audience-friendly movie about Harriet and really look at her as a little bit of a black female action hero, which she was. I think it was a good approach.
Harriet Tubman had a very unique, really intense relationship with God. How did her faith come through in the movie you made?
I don’t think you can tell the story without it. If you look at everything that she says, she attributes her journey and her success to a higher power and her connection with God. So I didn’t think that it was possible to tell the story without it.
I’m very interested in belief and faith and spirituality. I was very interested in her spirituality. I didn’t really see it as religious. I saw it as more of a spiritual thing, but she was very confident in it and she was very outspoken about it. I don’t think you can tell the Harriet Tubman story without it.
It’s interesting how people like Tubman were so motivated by the same religion that many of their captors had manipulated as a tool of oppression.
Honestly, she doesn’t talk very much about religion. She talks about a very personal spiritual connection with God. Like, a direct communication. She doesn’t speak in Bible terms. It’s a very specific relationship with God.
She was injured very badly, hit in the head, and began to have these seizures and began to think that God was speaking directly to her, guiding her.
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Source: Relevant Magazine