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Why a new film about Harriet Tubman focuses on freedom

The Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor, Harriet Tubman, is featured in a new film -- the first to share her story on the big screen. Director Kasi Lemmons and actress Cynthia Erivo, who stars as the title character in “Harriet,” sit down with Amna Nawaz to discuss balancing biography and action, how they researched the project, the criticism they’ve received and the film’s “female gaze.”

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Finally tonight: A film out today shows abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a new light.

    As I found in a recent conversation with the director and star of "Harriet," there is so much more to her personal story and historical role than is usually told.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

    Born around 1820 to enslaved parents, Araminta Ross, known as Minty, braved a 100-mile journey north to freedom as a young woman in 1849. She began her new life with a new name, Harriet Tubman, then returned to the South dozens of times to free more than 300 enslaved people throughout her lifetime, including her own family, along the network of abolitionists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.

    She continued to lead in the fight against slavery as a spy in the Civil War. And she went on to become one of the only American women to lead an armed expedition.

    After the war, Tubman returned to her home in Auburn, New York, where she died in 1913 at the estimated age of 91.

    The story of the Underground Railroad's most famous conductor is now being told in "Harriet," which is also the first to tell Tubman's story on the big screen.

    I'm joined now by the director, Kasi Lemmons, and the star, Cynthia Erivo.

    Welcome to you both.

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    Hi.

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thank you for being here.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kasi, let me start with you.

    There is enormous responsibility and pressure that comes with telling this story for the first time in this way. How did you approach this story?

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    I was definitely intimidated at first, but I was also very excited for the opportunity.

    And I figured, if I kept Harriet as my North Star, just really focused on the research, really focused on the connection that I was making with her, then I would be OK. It kind of — it alleviated some of the nerves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is very much a biographical element to this. There's a historical element to this.

    This is also very much an action film.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a lot of activity. You see not just what the work is, but how she did it.

    What did you do to do that, to prepare for a role like this and be connected? How do you do that?

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    It was the conversations Kasi and I had, the research you do. You do the reading. You make sure that you mean take a look at pictures, imagery, studying her face.

    We tried to find out what her voice could sound like, how she would speak, the cadence that she would probably use.

    Working on the physicality, and because of what was in the script, I was able to figure out the kind of run she might have, things like, when does she trip? Is it an even run? Is it more feminine? And I wanted to make sure that people saw her femininity. So you have to throw that in as well.

    You do a lot to make sure you're connected. And those are the things that thrill me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is always the challenge with telling someone's story, though, years after they have passed. There are historical bones there. You need to flesh them out with detail and color and dialogue.

    And there are a lot of characters in there, for example, William Still, right, which we know played a central role in maintaining the records of the Underground Railroad.

    How do you decide where the line is between sticking close to historical fact and then taking some artistic liberties?

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    You can stick very close to historical fact.

    Like, you might know that she and William met at a certain time, but you're going to have to fill in some of the dialogue.

  • Actor:

    Would you like to pick a new name to mark your freedom? Most ex-slaves do. Any name you want.

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    They called my mama Rit, but her name Harriet. I want my mama name and my husband. Harriet Tubman.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's this element to it I noticed as I watched. It's very much told through a female gaze.

    A lot of stories about enslaved people we hear come from men. And in this role, you have got a strong female character. Even in the time when she delivers her most impassioned speech, it's from a female's perspective. It's about the rape of young girls. It's about children being separated from their mothers.

    Was that a deliberate choice?

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    I think it was definitely deliberate on her part, but it was, for me, essential, because I think too often we have these stories about women, and they aren't coming from women's places. And we don't have enough of it.

  • Actor:

    There's nothing more you can do.

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    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, and I made it.

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    We specifically wanted talk about family separation.

    A lot has been said about the cruelty of slavery, psychological torment of seeing of seeing your sisters sold away or a mother seeing her daughter sold, or people having to choose between running and leaving their children.

    Those kind of decisions were inherent in her story, and were so full of pain and so, I thought, relevant today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's also this part, which I love, was sort of surprising to me. There's a love story that inspires her, that sort of guides her journey from the beginning, which is not how most of us learn about the story of Harriet Tubman.

    Why was it important for you to flesh out that part of her life?

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    Possibly because we don't get to see that of her. I think we see this picture. We know of her as the hero. We know that she's done all this work, and we know that she is this strong, strong woman. But we don't get to know that she was loved and was in love.

    And I feel like it's the one thing that sort of makes her real and grounds her and says to us that she was human, and that the things she went through were — were human things. And she was an extraordinary being.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kasi, I have to ask you.

    Some of the criticism has been that you have kind of glanced over much of the atrocity and the actual horrors of slavery in America, that people may see the scars that resulted from that horror and atrocity, but you don't show how it came about.

    That had to be a deliberate choice on your part. Tell me why.

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    Yes.

    I mean, a lot has been done with the cruelty to enslaved people's bodies. I mean, it's been done very beautifully.

    I focused on what anybody would say about the Harriet Tubman story. So, if you were to talk about Harriet, you would say, she escaped slavery. She went back to liberate others.

    I focused on the verbs of freedom. I really did. It's about — it's about escape. It's about what one woman was willing to do in order to be free. And she was willing to die for it in liberating others.

    So, the freedom, the liberation, the return, that's what I focus on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The movie is "Harriet."

    Cynthia Erivo and Kasi Lemmons, thank you for being here.

  • Cynthia Erivo:

    Thank you. Thank you.

  • Kasi Lemmons:

    Thank you.

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