Kasi Lemmons | You’ve a Premonition, a Disposition, and There’s Nothing You Can’t Do
Years ago, I came across an article by the late Roger Ebert praising Eve's Bayou as the best film of 1997. It’s an original, coming-of-age drama set in 1960’s Louisiana, centered around a young Eve, played by Jurnee Smollett, who navigates puberty, paternal adultery, fickle memories, and Jim Crow. She also begins to see the future in her dreams, a supernatural departure from the film’s harsh realities.
Eve’s Bayou was the first film by Missouri-born director Kasi Lemmons, who has had an ambitious, if not under-appreciated, career. All five of her releases are unconventional; The Caveman’s Valentine, a film about a schizophrenic, homeless, Juilliard-trained pianist who comes across a frozen body; or Black Nativity, a meta, musical reimagination of Langston Hughes’ similarly titled play. She has also had an extensive career as an actress, working with Spike Lee on School Daze and the late Johnathan Demme in Silence of the Lambs. Needless to say, Lemmons is consistently unafraid of creative challenges.
Lemmons’ sixth project, Harriet, hits theatres on November 1st. The film is the first wide release biopic of the eponymous protagonist, abolitionist, suffragist, scout, spy, commander, and seer. Grammy, Tony, and Emmy award winner Cynthia Erivo stars in the titular role, headlining a cast that includes fellow Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe, and Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall. It’s shocking that it has taken a century of Hollywood entertainment for the quintessential American freedom fighter to have a proper introduction on the silver screen. Harriet essentializes the Underground Railroad leader without reducing her character and compresses her unwieldy narrative without cheapening her plight.
When I call Lemmons, she’s in Toronto, capping off a weekend spent working on both creative pursuits and the increasingly hectic press tour for Harriet. Despite the stress, she maintains a warm, gentle timbre.
The screenplay for Harriet had bounced around Hollywood for years before production was underway. When Focus Features eventually asked Lemmons to take the reigns, they entrusted her with complete control over the script. “I thought I was in a general meeting with a producer, and part-way through I realized she was talking to me about rewriting and directing Harriet,” she quietly admits to me. “I had to curtail my excitement.” Lemmons hastily whips out her phone to list off her research materials; Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, and Beverly Lowry’s Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life are her favorites—she finally bubbles. “My favorite is to read books that I really, really like.”
It’s not a coincidence that Lemmons’ oeuvre is filled with two period pieces, two biopics, and a historical reinterpretation. She transferred from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to UCLA’s history program as a young woman and, apparently, continues to be a history nerd. “American history is very complicated to say the least,” she trails off, pausing to gather her thoughts. “We can’t grapple with the present fully until we understand the past.”
How does one depict a woman as ingenious as Harriet Tubman in the span of two hours? To Lemmons, the answer is to boil Tubman down to her essence. “Harriet was motivated by wanting to save her people,” she explains. “Her story is so heroic that it can be hard to relate to sometimes.”
Then there are Tubman’s premonitions, signs from God that pointed her toward safety during her rescues. As Lemmons unpacks the mysterious nature of the visions, I can’t help but recall Eve’s dreams that Lemmons conjured over twenty years ago. It seems destined that Lemmons, with her talent and passion for reconciling the earthly and otherworldly, was chosen to visualize Tubman’s abstract relationship with God. “When I came onto Harriet and did my seven months of pure research on her, one of the things that struck me was that she was a mystic,” she reminisces. “It’s something people don’t really know, but you can’t tell the story without that.”
Somehow, Harriet, a biopic, and Eve’s Bayou, a fictional tale with voodoo magic, seem equally fantastic. Yet those impossible feats and inexplicable premonitions are responsible for Harriet Tubman’s legend as America’s fey Robin Hood, cementing her as a household name over a century after her passing. What’s more unbelievable, having premonitions or leading Union troops and freeing over 700 slaves as Tubman did in the Combahee Raid?
Maybe it took so long for Harriet Tubman’s story to be told on screen because it feels too grand to gaff. Lemmons’ steady hand keeps Harriet from flying off the rails. Despite Lemmons’ genre expertise, encyclopedic reverence for history, and profound professionalism, even she shrinks slightly when looking back down the colossal cinematic heights she has climbed. ”Harriet was certainly intimidating. But I wasn’t not going to do this because I was scared.”
In some ways, Harriet is a fiction. The memory of Tubman’s voyages down south is gone, faded with time and obscured by lore. But that leaves an imperative question: What was the nexus of Harriet Tubman? Lemmons answers, “Pain. I wanted to feel her heartbeat, feel her motivations. I think it’s a mistake not to paint a character’s pain. When people use the sheer force of will they are able to do incredible things.”
I leave Lemmons with one final word: “Oscars?” She laughs, inhales, and replies, “I’m just glad to be working.”