Faith and Ferocity: Interview With ‘Harriet’ Producer Debra Martin Chase
The producer of the Harriet Tubman biopic, which enjoyed a strong opening weekend, talks about her passion for the film’s heroine and why Tubman’s courage, determination and religious conviction were crucial to the project.
If you didn’t see Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet this weekend, you might be hearing about it this week from enthusiastic friends or co-workers.
The Harriet Tubman biopic topped box-office expectations in its opening weekend — and viewers loved what they saw, awarding it a perfect A+ in CinemaScore’s audience poll.
Harriet’s appeal is multifaceted, appealing to three demographics underserved by mainstream Hollywood fare: women, people of color and people of faith.
Producer Debra Martin Chase knows something about these three demographics.
Her career as a producer began in 1996 with the Denzel Washington/Meg Ryan military drama Courage Under Fire and the religiously themed Denzel Washington romantic comedy The Preacher’s Wife (a remake of the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife starring Cary Grant).
In 2012 she partnered with pastor and filmmaker T.D. Jakes and Whitney Houston to produce Sparkle, a faith-inflected musical about three African American sisters with a devoutly religious mother and the complications that arise between their faith and a possible musical career as a Supremes-like girl group.
Harriet has been a passion project for Chase for some time. I spoke to Chase by phone the day Harriet opened.
Congratulations on this historic film!
I’ve got butterflies in my stomach today. It never fails — opening day is nerve-wracking!
I can imagine! Your film comes just five years after 12 Years a Slave — incredibly, the first fact-based feature film about the slave experience in America. Since then, we’ve seen other firsts — Selma; Birth of a Nation. Can you speak to why it’s taken so long for these stories to begin to come to the screen?
12 Years a Slave was a brilliant movie. I am thrilled that it won “Best Picture.” It’s so painful. I can never watch it again!
For the filmmaking team — Kasi and my producing partner, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, and me — Harriet isn’t a movie about slavery. We really see this as a movie about empowerment and about freedom.
We really want this movie not only to pay tribute to Harriet and her courage and her determination, and her truly remarkable life, we also want this movie to inspire people to understand that, regardless of the circumstances into which you are born, you can control who you become and what you do with your life.
Hollywood is just beginning to understand that movies about women and about people of color are good business. So it’s a progression, and, really, I think the success of Wonder Woman, Black Panther and most definitely Hidden Figures really helped pave the way to finally getting this movie done.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, why has it taken Hollywood so long to figure this out?
You know, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t make the movies, then you can’t figure out whether or not they can succeed.
One of the other fallacies that Hollywood has operated under is that African American content doesn’t travel internationally. For years I would say that you can go anywhere in the world and they’re listening to black music. So, again, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman did almost as much business foreign as it did domestically — Black Panther, too. So we have been in [there] fighting, and we are finally seeing some progress.
One way in which your film is exceptional among historical films is in its attention to the role of religion and to Harriet’s faith. Do you have any thoughts about that and about the importance of depicting Harriet’s faith in her journey?
Harriet’s faith was essential to her being, so, with Kasi and Daniela, we decided very early on that there is no way that you could tell her story and not include her strong faith. Every account of her talks about it. So that just had to happen.
Is religion another blind spot in a lot of Hollywood productions — something that gets left out of many historical films?
I think often there’s a tendency for people to shy away from religious themes because they think they are going to alienate part of the audience. I just think that, when you are telling a biopic, you have to be true to your subject. I can’t speak for other filmmakers, but I’m not afraid of it. It was real, it was hugely important to her, and I know that a lot of viewers are going to connect with that.
Harriet’s struggles didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. For example, as you note in the closing titles, she went on to fight for women’s suffrage. If she were alive today, what do you think she might be fighting for?
Certainly she’d be fighting for these poor migrant families that are being torn apart, kids being taken away at the border. What she went through in her life, watching her own family torn apart — the fact that we’re back with one of the most horrible parts of slavery, still grappling with that same issue, is really heartbreaking.
I think she would still be fighting for equality — and for people to communicate. That’s one of the problems in our country right now: People only talk to people that think the same way that they do. We need to reach out across the aisle and try and move forward together.
Other than being true to Harriet’s faith, what were your top priorities about telling the story? What did you most want to come across about Harriet Tubman?
First, what I said earlier about having the power to shape who we become and what we do with our lives. Second, to remind everybody that we each can make a difference, in our family, in our schools, our churches, our cities, our state, in the world. We each have the power.
Here’s this woman who could not read, could not write and was destined to be a slave her entire life. And yet she saved her family, she saved her people, and she changed the course of a nation.
I think often, with everything going on today, we feel hopeless and feel helpless. But that is not the case. We can each make a difference.
Third, we had a team of female filmmakers here, and it was really important for us to portray Harriet fully as a woman — a woman who experienced heartbreak, a woman who was fierce and determined, a woman who was at times vulnerable.
So often, in a situation like this, Hollywood decides to portray women as men, but that is not the case!
Did you learn anything during this process about Harriet Tubman that surprised you?
I started this five and a half years ago when Greg Howard, an old friend of mine, approached me about joining forces with him to bring this story to the screen.
Of course I knew of Harriet Tubman, of her affiliation with the Underground Railroad. But there was so much about her life that I didn’t know, and I didn’t really fully appreciate how incredibly fierce and determined she was.
We have approached this in many ways as an origin superhero story. Because what she accomplished was absolutely amazing. There was so much I learned about her, and we wanted to share that with the world.
When Harriet first arrives in Philadelphia and explains to the Underground Railroad historian William Still about her injury and her visions, he writes down “Possible brain injury.” This is interesting to me, because it’s something I happen to have been thinking about all week. I spoke recently with Robert and Michelle King, the creators of the TV show Evil, which is all about ambiguity between what is really supernatural and what is mental illness, for example. I also spoke with Paul Harrell, whose new film, Light from Light, is about whether or not there’s a ghost. So I’m wondering: Do you think Still’s skeptical view is a possible view in your film? Or is God definitely speaking to Harriet?
Harriet stated very clearly everywhere that she believed that she communicated directly with God. So if you doubt, you doubt, but there was no doubt in her mind that she was communicating with God. And she accomplished extraordinary things, and, as you said, her faith was so deep. She believed it, so it was true for her, and, therefore, I accept it.
Frederick Douglass appears very briefly in this film. There’s never been a big-screen feature film about him. Is that a project you may be interested in taking on?
There was originally a lot more of Frederick Douglass in the movie, and it ended up being a bit of a detour, so we had to trim it down.
I suspected that might be the case!
I want to read the new biography on Frederick Douglass so I could learn more about him. These movies are heavy lifting to create, and so you take the ones that really strike a chord. Not that there aren’t other fabulous stories, but you have to pick your battles.
What other battles do you think might be worth picking, either for you or for someone else, in terms of notable stories of African American heroes that have been neglected by Hollywood?
Most of them have been neglected. There have been very few stories told, so I think people just have to find the stories that they really connect to.
Kasi and I have a brilliant book written by Gail Lumet Buckley called The Black Calhouns. It’s about 100 years from the end of Reconstruction to the civil-rights movement, about Lena Horne’s family. Basically it’s like Roots for the black middle class. That’s the one that I would love to make happen someday.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this story on the big screen for many years; not everyone has. In fact, I hate to say this, but I do hear from some people who wonder out loud why this story is so important at all. If you were talking with someone who had that opinion, or that question, is there anything that you would want to say to them?
Why is Lincoln important? I mean, that’s why you tell the story: You can show people why someone is important.
This woman changed the course of our nation. She saved hundreds of people’s lives. She was a huge figure in both women’s rights and in the rights of diverse people in this country.
She’s also an inspiration to so many people. People may not know her story enough to really appreciate what she represents, but certainly for women of color, she is a huge source of inspiration already.