Tag Archives: Octavia Spencer

26Oct/19

Exclusive: Harriet director, Kasi Lemmons, Discusses Film, Eve’s Bayou, Candy Man

Harriet director Kasi Lemmons and actress Cynthia Erivo (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

This year, director and writer, Kasi Lemmons, will bring one of the most heroic and inspiring Black woman figures to the screen, Harriet Tubman.  The film, Harriet, stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr,. and Jonelle Monae. It is a biopic about the life of Harriet Tubman from her first escape to freedom to being the conductor of the Underground Railroad. The film premiere was held on Oct. 22, 2019 in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian African American Musem. Taji Mag was able to speak with the director, Kasi Lemmons, about her creative process and development of the film. 

Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): What was the importance of making this film and will this film impact the future of storytelling from the perspective of Black people? 

Kasi Lemmons ( KL): As filmmakers, we always ask ourselves, what are the great characters? I write from the characters all the time. Harriet Tubman was one of the greatest figures who has lived. So for me, the fact that no feature film has ever been made about Harriet and she is just such an important person for Americans, especially African American women… This hero needs to be brought to the world, a hero to me on the level of Mother Teresa and Gandhi. She’s a real superhero.

In terms of our future as storytellers, the more we can tell compelling stories that people relate to, the better. There are so many women directors right now and there are so many stories to tell, it’s always been a matter of is the industry ready to accept these stories. Now we are in a period where we can have a Black person as the lead and hero in a movie and bring characters like Harriet to the screen.   

(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

(DDF): What makes this film different from the other films that are about Black slavery? 

(KL): Harriet, to me, has always been a story about freedom. If I were to ask you to tell me the story of Harriet Tubman, you would say that she escaped from slavery and then she went back to liberate others. To me, those were like the verbs, that is the Harriet Tubman story. 

(DDF): What was your reaction when you found out that you were doing this film? 

(KL): My heart started racing, they just kind of sprung it on me and I didn’t have time to think about it, which was good in a way because I went to a meeting and the producer said it in the room. They surprised me because I thought I was just going to a general meeting. I was able to check my pulse to measure my own reaction and, as I am experiencing it, I am thinking, “your heart is really racing, I think you are very interested in this!” 

(DDF): You have mentioned in one of your articles that this feeling of excitement is like falling in love. Can you explain?

(KL): Find a good film to work on is always like falling in love to me. There’s always a process of courtship; you’re getting to be friends and then all a sudden you fall in love. With this film, I was really intrigued by it from the very beginning. The love started in my research; she is an incredible presence in my life. 

Lemmons with her husband Vondie Curtis Hall and son. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

(DDF): What was your approach to creating the premonition scenes that Harriet experienced? 

(KL): I went through a lot of stages with it, then boiled it down to its most simple form, because I felt like they were like flashes of inspiration. They took many different forms, she had dreams, trances, sometimes just flashes of premonitions, and seizures. So I started to think about what seizures felt like and tried to make a shocking type of image. 

(DDF): You did some very creative things to create the premonition scene with the various colors used. How did that come about? 

(KL): When I looked up seizures and really tried to read people’s experiences of what seizures looked like to them, I would find the word monochromatic over and over again. I thought that is what I was trying to make it look like. 

(DDF): “What is a man to with a woman touched by God” is a line in the script that stood out to me. How did you come up with it? 

(KL): It’s interesting, that is a scene that I wrote the night before we shot it. The producers and executive producers at Focus Features, wanted me to try and describe what it felt like to Harriet after her husband re-married. So we imagined a scene with Marie where she would tell her what it felt like to her. I put off writing it because it was a hurdle to me – how do you write what God feels like? Then I started to explore what it would it feel like to Harriet, I wrote it the night before the shoot and they (Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monáe) did it in two takes. 

Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

(DDF): In the film, we see the evolution of the heroic woman icon, how did you go about the character development from Minty to Harriet? 

(KS): There is a huge arc that we felt in her character, she almost becomes different people. From an ordinary woman into this almost mythic side of herself, she names herself and she is apart of that. So we named them, Minty, Harriet, and Moses. Everybody participated in the character development; Me, Cynthia, and costume designer, Paul Tazewell.  We created her and it was a group effort to give you that arc. From Minty and her dress to when she becomes Harriet in her mission costume, it’s a big arc. 

(DDF): What advice would you give to your younger self at the time you made Eve’s Bayou? 

(KL): In some ways, I don’t know if I would give myself any advice. Now, where I am in life, I like the way that things unfolded. Take for instance, after I made Eve’s Bayou, I didn’t know if I was going to make another movie but that was a wonderful thing to think at that moment because I was going for broke. So I put everything into it. I’ve had ups and downs in my career. If I could talk myself through those, I would tell myself that you are going to have ups and downs but if you keep going, you get to travel the world, you’ll meet extraordinary people, you’ll work with some of the most talented people and you’ll have a great time. 

(DDF): You are also doing a CJ Madam Walker series, what brought you to do that project? 

(KL): I have been infatuated with Madam CJ Walker for 20 years. Literally 20 years ago, I was thinking, “You know, it would be dope if we did something about Madam CJ Walker!” So when that came about, I was super excited about being involved in it. Then, Octavia Spencer, she’s perfect for the role. It’s a story that has been interesting for a long time, she is the first self-made Black woman millionaire and you know hair is so special to us black women, we’ve got our own thing. I had a really good time working it. 

Kasi Lemmons on set. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

(DDF): Do you hope to bring more important black women figures to film or tv? Any ideas? 

(KL): Oh, I am sure I will do more films about important Black women figures. Do I have any in mind…maybe? (laughs) 

(DDF): You were in the horror films Candyman and Silence of the Lambs.  Have you had any input or help in the development of the new Candyman film? 

(KL): I have contributed to Candyman already in that I mentor the director for the film, Nia DaCosta, since her first Sundance film. She’s great!   

(DDF):  Will you make your own horror film?

(KL): There is something that I have in mind but I have to be careful because I am extremely sensitive. I have to protect my energy a lot and be careful of what I bring into my life. When I bring in truth, beauty, and righteousness, it’s a good feeling, so I am afraid and that’s the truth. 

The film Harriet was a great film with a lot of exploration of the characters’ bravery, selflessness, spiritually, and intelligence. It stands out as a story about the perseverance of the human spirit against discrimination. Creatively, it is a departure from the usual ‘slave cry’ moments that have become rhetoric in most of the blockbuster slave themed movies and I am thankful for that. Go see Harriet November 1st. 

Harriet

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., and Janelle Monae.

 

15Aug/19

Luce is a Captivating Thriller That Addresses Racism and Mental Health

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr, and Naomi Watts.

High schooler, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), overcame a nightmarish past as a child soldier in Eritrea to become the definition of the All-American teenager. As a valedictorian, track star, and all-around popular kid, his life seems set until he suddenly finds himself at odds with an overbearing teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). When his loving adoptive parents, played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, become entangled in the suspicions of this teacher, complex questions of prejudice suddenly bubble to the surface, threatening to expose the ugly truths about all involved. (Tribeca Film Festival) 

Luce is a captivating thriller that challenges views on parenting and prejudice surrounding adoptive interracial families. The film really kept me ambivalent as to what the motives of each character really was. The talented cast peeled back the layers of their respective characters, especially rising star, Kelvin Harris Jr., who portrays Luce as a cunning, charming, and an innocent teenager. The parents did well at convincing us of juggling raising Luce and keeping their marriage together. Octavia Spencer, once again, portrayed a phemonal role as the teacher that has concerns about Luce that may derail his path to a successful college career. 

Luce at Tribeca

At the Tribeca Film Festival, I was able to talk to the writer, director, and producer, Julius Ohna, on the red carpet who explained, “ I want people to ask real questions about the way they perceive things like privilege. We live in these multicultural societies, where the ways that we look at each other can have a real impact on the way people’s lives are led and if we are asking questions that are beyond our blind spots and not looking past them, I think there’s a real change that can come.” 

The red carpet interviews and the showing were followed by a Q&A with the director and cast. I felt there was going to be tension in the room as the film depicted issues that society as a whole tends to leave unanswered. 

The host of the Q&A – writer, director, and radio producer, Rebecca Carroll asked thought-provoking questions. Those very same questions caused a lot of the audience members to leave the building due to the sensitive topic. One of the more difficult questions asked was about how does the white couple feel raising a young black teenager? A question that only Onley could answer since he wrote the film.

Tim Roth and other castmates could only approach the question as concerned parents, nothing more. Boasting a revelatory central performance by Harrison (who also appears this year in Gully) and nuanced work from an electrifying ensemble, director and co-writer Julius Onah twists this tale (adapted with JC Lee from his own play) into unexpected shapes, forcing the audience to examine the characters from every imaginable angle. Tension pulls at the screen, allegiances shift, and the viewer’s own biases are used to deepen the storytelling in masterful ways.
—Loren Hammonds 

Takaways from the film? 

  1. Mental health is still a significant issue that needs to be addressed for people of color, especially the child soldiers, like Luce, who suffer from a tremendous amount of stress and mental manipulation. 
  2. Luce, Tribeca Film Festival

    Caring for family with extreme mental health conditions is a difficult job. The Wilson sisters in the film, portrayed by Octavia Spencer and Marsha Stephanie Blake, gave an in-depth look at how this situation requires patience and a lot of energy.

  3. People still don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation when it comes to racism. While watching this film and attending the Q&A after the Tribeca premiere, I noticed how the characters in the film and people in the audience avoided the issue of racism. 
  4. Immigrants are not evil and they are not novelties. In the film, it is shown that Luce is sort of a token character and he plays the role to a tee to fit his needs. Although it is just a film, it can show how, in some cases, children in this situation can be championed in comparison to another teens who come from a background with non-adoptive parents who happen to be Black. 
  5. Trials and tribulations have no bias. The film does a great job of displaying the temptations and issues that the teenagers in the suburbs deal with that are similar to teens living in the inner city. The teens come from different backgrounds but still face life challenges. 

Nonetheless, Luce is a great, thrilling film that properly addresses mental health, social and racial issues. If you’re looking for a film that is thought provoking and filled with many plot twists, you should definitely check it out. 

Luce is in theaters now. It stars Kelvin Harris Jr., Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, Andrea Bang, and Marsha Stephanie Blake.