“Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons says she thinks of her great new Harriet Tubman biopic as a freedom movie rather than a slavery movie.
“It’s actually a controversial choice,” says Lemmons, recently in the Bay Area for the Mill Valley Film Festival. “I definitely didn’t want to avoid the pain of it, but I wanted you to experience freedom, what freedom feels like and how it resonates and what people are willing to do with it.”
While many movies about slavery feel like lectures or punishments, Lemmons — who fills a room with her warm, majestic spirit — deliberately went with a different, more positive tone.
“Harriet” stars Cynthia Erivo as the great abolitionist whose work with the Underground Railroad rescued dozens of slaves.
A Tony winner for “The Color Purple,” Erivo employs her remarkable singing voice in sequences where Tubman uses songs to send signals to waiting slaves.
“Cynthia and I had to decide what Harriet sounded like, because she didn’t sound like Cynthia,” says Lemmons.
It was decided Tubman should have a “pure” voice, stripped of flourishes a trained singer might be tempted to add.
“Because it’s communication, she’s using it as a weapon,” says Lemmons. “It’s a way of fighting, a way or resisting. It’s a call that’s waiting for a response.”
Lemmons also praises Erivo’s acting, showcased in scene-stealing roles in “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.”
“It’s the meaning of the true art of acting, where you’re able to be so present and use yourself to bring the character, but also get out of the way of the character and let it come through you,” says Lemmons.
Erivo’s performance was so intense that, when Lemmons called “cut” on the film’s final take, the actress apparently collapsed.
Like all of Lemmons’ films, going back to her remarkable 1997 debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” “Harriet” is both powerful and delicate, embracing reality and magic.
The magical realism and voodoo in “Eve’s Bayou” echo key moments in “Harriet.” Tubman, in real life, suffered seizures; Lemmons chose to represent them as beautiful, blue-toned memories, or visions of things to come.
“I think it’s the film of mine that’s most in conversation with my first film,” says Lemmons.
On “Harriet,” one essential scene — in which Tubman makes it to the Pennsylvania border, and freedom — was a true test for Lemmons.
She makes a joyous little hop over the border, while a glorious, multicolored sky shines above.
For the filmmakers, the day started quite differently: “We came to work and it was pouring, the darkest, most horrible, gloomy, ugly, rainy day. It just puts you in a funk.”
The rain and mud made the location inaccessible by vehicle, so everything had to be hauled uphill on foot. As Erivo was grumpy from many costume changes, and from shooting non-sequential scenes, Lemmons begged her for one more.
But, Lemmons says, “The second the crane gets built, Cynthia shows up. The sky parts. The beautiful sun piercing through these incredible clouds. We had one take. And Cynthia experiences all of that, as Harriet, in the moment.”
After, Lemmons checked with cinematographer John Toll (“The Thin Red Line”), who was watching the take in his tent. “All of a sudden, he giggles. John’s been around. He’s not a giggling guy. I came out of the tent, and everyone’s in tears. It was amazing.”
She continues, her eyes glistening: “We were never going to be back at this location. If we leave without getting this, we just won’t have it. Magic has to happen sometimes.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Joe Alwyn
Written by: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes