If a common thread exists between Kasi Lemmons’ works, it’s forgotten or underestimated Black Americans. Her debut feature, Eve’s Bayou, sparked a cultural revelation. Beyoncé and Melina Matsoukas described the visual language of that film as a major influence on the “Lemonade” music video. With an average of four years between films, Lemmons may not be the most prolific director working, but she is certainly one of the most interesting. Her films have tackled familial secrets, the overlooked murder of homeless youth, and an interpretation of Langston Hughes’ play, Black Nativity.
During a recent speaking engagement at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Lemmons spoke to the reasoning behind her long hiatus between films. “I’ve spent most of my time in the past 22 years trying to get movies made,” she explained. “I’m very proud that I’ve gotten to make five movies, but I spend 80% of my time trying to get movies made.”
Her latest film, Harriet, a biopic of American hero Harriet Tubman, came under fire for its depiction of slavery, the choice to cast Cynthia Erivo in the lead role, and the choice to make the big bad a Black slave catcher. Lemmons arrived on the project after Erivo signed on and after the completion of the script. She rewrote portions of the script and received a co-writer credit for her work, and Lemmons maintains that Erivo was the right choice for the role.
When I walked out of a screening of Harriet, I soon discovered how little some of my peers knew about the American hero. As we gathered in the lobby to discuss what we’d just seen, one colleague asked, “Did Harriet really hear voices?” From there, the conversation took a turn. Did I consider Harriet a religious film?
“I didn’t know much about Tubman growing up,” Lemmons says. The visions Tubman experienced in particular came as a surprise to Lemmons. Tubman was hit over the head as a child. As a result, she believed she could hear the voice of God guiding her. The distinction between a film about religion and a religious film lays in the moral messaging. “No, I wouldn’t call it a spiritual film,” Lemmons explains. “Harriet was a religious person, and this is how she told her story.” Tubman never preaches her faith to those she’s trying to free, though she does insist God protected her.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m into the spiritual element,” Lemmons explains. For example, through her research on the paths taken to freedom, she discovered settings she hadn’t contemplated. “Water became an important element the more research I did,” she says. “It was all around [enslaved Americans]. The Underground Railroad had big ships Lemmons hadn’t seen before. These ships “brought out an element of our ancestry,” she says. “You think of crossing the River Jordan.”
That passion for the spiritual guided Lemmons through the process of selecting where to shoot. Famously, the filming of slave narratives takes place on the same grounds once worked by enslaved Americans. The experience of recreating such a brutal history impacts each crew differently. Lemmons used an assist from the beyond to guide her choices, just like Harriet.
“The ancestors were there with us,” she says. “There may have been a different crew on another production that might not have been impacted by it, but we certainly felt it. There were some places (former plantations) we visited that I knew had bad energy. I chose not to film in places where the energy was off.”
I asked Lemmons what she learned about the ancestors who travelled the trail. The lives of abolitionists with power and money intrigued me the most, since their stories rarely make the silver screen. Few images of these pioneers remain, but their letters and books survived the centuries. In their phrasing, Lemmons saw a proud people. “If you read the words of the emancipated, you can hear how formal they were with one another. We brought that into each character.”
Lemmons’ first film featured young Black women living three-dimensional lives. Eve’s Bayou was the first time I saw myself in a film. When I found out a Black woman had directed it, I thought I could be a filmmaker, too. At TIFF, Lemmons answered a fan question: What advice would the filmmaker give to young Black women who want to become directors? “If there’s anything else you can do, you might want to think about those things.”
Hearing her answer devastated me. When I tell her this, she laughs gently and explains. “I’ve loved my journey, but it hasn’t always been easy.” She takes a short breath before continuing. “You have to be tough if you’re going to live an artist’s life. I said that not to be discouraging, but to prepare them.”
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.