Kasi Lemmons Aims High With Ambitious Historical Drama Based Off Harriet Tubman’s Extraordinary Life
Actress and director Kasi Lemmons has been a champion of black American cinema for a while now. Ever since she won the Best First Feature Independent Spirit Award in 1997 for “Eve’s Bayou,” she has been making stellar films starring predominantly black casts focusing largely on black experiences.
Diverse, Seasoned Crew Behind the Camera Adds to the Film’s High Expectations
On November 1st, her latest and most ambitious project in that same vein will hit theaters. “Harriet” is Lemmons’ fifth movie and it tells the story of Harriet Tubman. Part bio-pic, part heritage film, and all parts historical drama, “Harriet” focuses on the slave-turned-abolitionist’s radical acts of unparalleled bravery in the pre-antebellum era that solidified her as a hero in one of America’s darkest hours.
Making a movie about Harriet Tubman is a bold undertaking. When the project was first proposed in 2015, Viola Davis was supposed to direct and star in it. Once that fell through, though, it was handed off to Lemmons. Given her filmography and her academic background—she briefly studied history at UCLA—Lemmons seemed like the perfect fit for the job. Gregory Allen Howard also wrote the story for “Harriet.” A black screenwriter from Virginia, Howard has written other race-themed films such as “Remember The Titans” and “Ali.”
Controversy over Heritage and yet Critics point out lack of Innovation and Pace
Nevertheless, when a movie centers on such a complicated period and such an iconic figure, even the biggest feet can struggle to fill the shoes. “Harriet” had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and although Focus Films picked it up for distribution, the movie received nothing more than adequate reviews, getting criticism for being slow and offering nothing new to the biopic genre.
Likewise, even before the movie even came out, Black American activists groups backlashed and protested the film for Cynthia Erivo playing the title character. Erivo is Nigerian-American, and while she is certainly black, she does not have any lineage of enslavement in the United States. Many black activists expressed distaste for this casting decision, deeming it inappropriate for a woman with no slavery in her ancestry to play one of the most important black abolitionists of all time.
The Film’s Release Date could allow for ‘Harriet’ to find a Niche
On the other hand, to the film’s benefit, it will be coming out on a somewhat sleepy weekend at the box office. On November 1st, its competition will be “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Arctic Dogs” and “Motherless Brooklyn.” None of these films are really similar, and therefore “Harriet” will be able to stand on its own.
Shortly afterwards, though, “Doctor Sleep” will come out on the 8th and then Disney+ will launch on the 12th, both of which may dwarf “Harriet” in terms of audience size.
Being an indie-film from a longtime indie director, it is unlikely that “Harriet” was made with the intention of breaking the box office. Still, it would be shame for a movie that chronicles such an important story to go unnoticed.
It goes without saying that Harriet Tubman deserves a movie made about her, one that is truthful to her remarkable life and celebrates all of the courageous acts she committed for America’s enslaved people. Evidently, however, even with the right director and writer, creating such a movie is incredibly difficult.
For a mix of reasons, some of them within and some of them outside of her control, Kasi Lemmons may have bitten off more she could chew with this project, and the final product may unfortunately reflect something below her talents and beneath our ungraspable expectations.
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