Cynthia Erivo And Kasi Lemmons Discuss Bringing Harriet Tubman’s ‘Freedom Story’ To Life

The director and stars of "Harriet" on how they went about crafting this important story for the big screen.

For many, the story of Harriet Tubman is the first and only historic example of an American of African descent who was physically invested in freeing herself and others from the barbarism of slavery. However, to say that Harriet's story is one that is only painted with the indigos of oppression is a misnomer at best. The fiery reds of passionate resistance and deep, contemplative violet hues are also apparent, both in the life of Harriet Tubman and the new film bearing her name.

RELATED: Harriet Tubman Honored For Liberating Herself

Recently, BET was on hand to discuss the new film Harriet with pioneering filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, lead actress Cynthia Erivo and multi-talented actor and musician Leslie Odom Jr., who plays abolitionist William Still.

The director and cast members discussed how they went about crafting this important story for the big screen.

BET: I've always felt the story of Harriet Tubman was one that lent itself perfectly to cinema. What do you think was preventing that from happening prior to your film?

Kasi Lemmons: I think that we're just now proving that female protagonists are viable, not to mention Black female protagonists in period dramas that are also action-adventure films, you know what I mean? It's such a big concept. It's so interesting that now it seems like a no-brainer, but it's such a complex concept. It was challenging. People have been trying to make a movie about Harriet Tubman for a long time.

BET: Cynthia, one of the things that drew me into your character and made me feel her on a visceral level is the way you reacted. Where did you pull that from? Because I really felt like I was there with you while you were shooting these scenes. Your facial expressions just drew me in and informed me of your connection to the work.

Cynthia: I want to say I got it from the people around me, the cast that was with me. Whenever I'm playing a scene with someone else, you listen and take that to heart. I try to make sure that I'm fully present at every moment on the set with someone or on the screen. That's the story. You want to make sure that whatever information I was getting, it was registering, so that you could feel what I was feeling.

We also studied her face, looked at her face and asked, "How did this down-turned mouth happen?" There was a sadness within her eyes, and I wanted to incorporate that with my own. To replace what I am with her.

BET: I'm sure you're aware of the pushback within the African-American community regarding "slavery films," but I never felt that this was a slavery story, although, of course, the elements are there. What made you push past that criticism and be able to create a work of your own outside of that noise, if you will.

Kasi: We always thought the Harriet story was a freedom story. Even if you ask a small child what's the Harriet Tubman story about, they would say that. She escaped for her freedom and went back to liberate others. The escape and liberation, the exhilaration of freedom and what one woman was willing to do for it. She would be free or die, and what she was willing to do so that others could have freedom.


Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman.
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman.

Kasi: Though much of the world recognizes Leslie Odom Jr. as a musician and Broadway actor, Leslie Odom Jr.'s on-screen resume is rather extensive, dating back more than 15 years.

BET: I really did love your character in Harriet. It harkened back to all my memories of how I felt an abolitionist should be. Upstanding, well-spoken and, for the time, very, very progressive. What was it about this character that made you want to play him?

Leslie Odom Jr.: The fact that he did the majority of his work in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philly. It speaks to the man but also speaks to the city. You think about the Boston Tea Party and things like that. Having traveled to Boston, I now realize that could have only happened in Boston. It's something about the people there. You see why, at one time, Philadelphia was the final stop on the Underground Railroad. They landed in Philly. Philly guided them there. I think that speaks to the city and what we're made of in the City of Brotherly Love, where I grew up. That drew me as well as Kasi, Cynthia, Deborah Martin Chase and the like.

BET: I felt like there was a certain amount of soulfulness inherent within the script. You being a musician, were those soulful notes apparent while reading the script?

Leslie: Yeah, for sure. I think that Kasi writes, every writer writes, with a certain kind of musicality. It either speaks to you or it doesn't. I love Kasi's writing. I really do. I do think that when people ask if me and Janelle Monae did a bunch of singing on the set. We didn't in the way you might expect, but we certainly did try to make these scenes sing. It's something about when you do the dance right, it does feel musical at a certain point.

BET: You also have a very extensive Broadway resume as well. Were you able to bring those aspects of yourself over such a feature film as this?

Leslie Odom Jr.: From the theater I try to bring, you know, theater is about full-body storytelling. That's what we were doing in Hamilton, trying to tell a story with our whole bodies that could affect a room of 1,400 people. Sometimes it can get a little smaller in film, but I'm certainly trying to bring that full “bodyness” to film. The film stuff is still new to me. I've spent a lot more time in the theater than I've spent on film. I'm very thankful to Kasi and others who keep giving me the opportunity to try.

Harriet opens in theaters nationwide on November 1. Beautifully shot and emotionally moving, it is a film whose time has come.


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