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An Interview with Kasi Lemmons

“WRITING IS BEING STILL ENOUGH TO LISTEN TO WHAT IS FLOWING THROUGH YOU. AND DIRECTING IS BEING STILL ENOUGH TO SEE AND TO BE A PART OF THE ALCHEMY THAT IS HAPPENING IN FRONT OF YOU.”

by Maori Karmael Holmes
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Kasi Lemmons

“WRITING IS BEING STILL ENOUGH TO LISTEN TO WHAT IS FLOWING THROUGH YOU. AND DIRECTING IS BEING STILL ENOUGH TO SEE AND TO BE A PART OF THE ALCHEMY THAT IS HAPPENING IN FRONT OF YOU.”

by Maori Karmael Holmes
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Kasi Lemmons

Maori Karmael Holmes
2 Snaps

After a fifteen-year career as an actress (including roles in The Silence of the Lambs, Fear of a Black Hat, The Five Heartbeats, and Candyman, among other films), Kasi Lemmons burst onto the late-1990s indie film scene with Eve’s Bayou, a debut feature so lush, spiritual, and layered that it would take some time for many viewers to really understand it. When the film was released, in 1997, it hit me in the gut in a way that was simultaneously familiar and enchanting. Eve’s Bayou is the story of a Creole family in a quaint Louisiana parish headed by a devilishly attractive country doctor, but run by a trio of fierce women, one of whom just may be a witch. Although it is tonally in kinship with other favorites of that era—The House of the Spirits, Like Water for Chocolate, Daughters of the DustEve’s Bayou was not like anything I’d seen before in the cinema. The intricacy of the Batiste family’s parlor recalled the sensibilities of my maternal grandmother, who came from a large multihued clan in Mississippi, and the fitted bodices of their day dresses brought to mind my paternal grandmother, a seamstress from Oklahoma by way of Texas. Upon rewatching it nearly a decade later, while teaching the film, many of the nuances of “grown” womanhood became discernible to me, and I realized what an extraordinary portrait of Black femininity it was—replete with our strengths, frailties, styles, and anxieties.

Eve’s Bayou was a feat for a first-time filmmaker and introduced audiences to then child actors Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and also reintroduced non–soap opera audiences to the inimitable Debbi Morgan, showed a sophisticated and dashing side of Samuel L. Jackson, and helped to cement Lynn Whitfield’s cinematic persona as the long-suffering lioness. Perhaps the most magnificent triumph of the film is the against-type casting of the late glorious Diahann Carroll as the village bruja (the sound of her taunting the Batistes while covered in white face paint in the open-air market is forever seared in my brain).

After Bayou, Lemmons went on to defy the institutional restrictions that her Black filmmaker peers described to The New York Times as a “sophomore curse.” She has had a bountiful career—including directing five feature films and several television episodes, writing screenplays, and teaching. Lemmons recently wrote the libretto for Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on Charles Blow’s memoir, which was commissioned by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and she has recently been tapped to executive-produce and direct a few episodes from an upcoming Netflix series on the life of Madam C. J. Walker.

Lemmons strikes me as incredibly self-possessed. In all of her projects, she has managed to reflect the interior and exterior worlds of her primarily African American subjects in fresh and insightful ways. In fall 2019, her most recent feature film, Harriet, about one of our most significant homegrown freedom fighters, will be distributed worldwide.

—Maori Karmael Holmes

 

I. “I WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE WITH ALL BLACK PEOPLE.”

THE BELIEVER: How did you evolve from acting into writing and directing?

KASI LEMMONS: I was having a pretty good time in my acting career. I clearly wasn’t getting famous, but I was working, and I was supporting myself. But I was unfulfilled and decided to make a move and do something. Because I had been writing since I was a kid, I really do consider myself a writer, and I started writing plays and scenes for friends to do in acting class. I thought, OK, this is interesting; this is something I can do for the rest of my life. At the same time, I really wanted to create on a meaningful level, and that was hard as an actor because the parts that I was getting at the time, or that were available for me, were “the Black best friend of the lead.” I started to feel like I was running a fever and that there were things that I needed to express, and that if I didn’t, then it would somehow sicken me, that I was going to suffer from not expressing myself fully.

Around that time I decided to go to film school. I wanted to make documentaries, maybe travel with a camera on my shoulder. I wanted to comment on what was going on in the world around me. I made my first short film [Fall from Grace, 1987] about a homeless man in New York. I wrote a voiceover, too, because I didn’t know any better—immediately I was writing and fictionalizing an element of the man’s story, and kind of breaking the rules, which I learned quickly when that film got around to festivals. But I was very proud of that film and got a little bit of attention from it. I decided that the next time I auditioned for The Cosby Show I was going to take my little film and show Bill Cosby and maybe something would happen. And then I had an audition for The Cosby Show, predictably. I had auditioned many times for the show. And I got a chance to ask Cosby, “Do you want to watch my short film?” And he said, “No, I don’t have time for that. What I’m really looking for is a writer.” And I said, “I’m a writer!” He said, “I want my next script to be written by women.” So he had me submit a scene. He gave me some parameters, which I can’t really remember, but I think it was a couple breaking up or disagreeing about something, and I was very comfortable with that exercise.

I got hired to write a screenplay with two playwrights, Lee Hunkins and P.J. Gibson, which was a super important, formative experience for me. They were wonderful writers. Working with the two of them provided a great education for me. The screenplay—one of my many—never got produced, but I got into the Writers Guild [of America], and that’s when I really became a professional writer. Later, I wrote a screenplay with a friend.

After that, I had the idea to write this personal story that had all these investigations in it, in which I raised a lot of questions. That was Eve’s Bayou, which was the first screenplay I really wrote by myself. After I wrote it, I didn’t intend to direct it. I thought if I directed, it would be a long time from then. But I did write a part, Mozelle, and I thought, You know, one day I’ll grow into this part. She’s kind of based off of my aunt Muriel and characters I loved in Southern literature.

While I was shopping that script, I realized I had actually written something delicate and that I cared what happened to it. And one day I woke up and it was like an epiphany—I thought, I’m the director for this film. I told the producers and my agent, and they didn’t balk. Then my agent and producer, Caldecot Chubb, financed a short film. He was like, “OK, forget those little films you made in film school. Those were weird. Let’s see if you can make a dramatic short.” That’s when I made Dr. Hugo (1996). I collaborated with Amy Vincent, a cinematographer who was just coming out of AFI’s [the American Film Institute’s] film school. Amy and I shot the short and then she went on to collaborate with me on Eve’s Bayou.

BLVR: Eve’s Bayou was my introduction to your voice. I’m curious about how you came to tell this story. I was wondering if you had any roots in Louisiana, and what is it about the world of that story that you thought was important to present to the world? It makes me think of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day or anything by Toni Morrison.

KL: I was deeply moved by Southern literature and African American literature, particularly Toni Morrison and the Latin American magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. Both Morrison and Márquez use magical realism to such amazing effect, and that was the language I naturally spoke. It reminded me of a certain way my mind worked and had always kinda worked since I was a little kid. It felt like a very natural way of telling stories.

My family is from the Deep South. My father was born in Louisiana but he grew up in Birmingham, and my mother grew up in Americus, Georgia. They met at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. I spent a lot of time in Alabama, where my maternal grandmother lived, and I was quite close to her. My father’s family was very mysterious to me. I think he was illegitimate, and I heard they changed their name from LeMons to Lemmons. In trying to figure it out, I became interested in the South.

I have vivid, fragrant, impressionistic memories of Tuskegee. I had written a series of short stories about these kids in a family, and it had to do with my childhood, specifically, but the stories didn’t really have a structure. In making the concrete story, the questions became more important than the answers.

It became important to place the story between an actual, real, concrete world and a more metaphysical cause-and-effect. If you say to somebody, “Drop dead, Daddy,” and then they die, did you have some cause? To me there was a way the people I heard talked, especially the Southerners, that hadn’t been captured the way I heard it—the beauty of it, the magic of it. I loved Zora Neale Hurston, but there was this other kind of music that I thought was like Shakespeare.

BLVR: I think stories from Black and Latinx folks get the “magical realism” label, when they’re actually more mundane than we acknowledge. Eve’s Bayou has this lovely sort of Rockwell-esque lens. This family is doing nothing for lots of the film, or rather nothing extraordinary.

KL: Definitely. I wanted to make a movie with all Black people. I wanted it to be about a place that had kind of merged into one race. To me it’s a fable; Eve’s Bayou was full of Black people that had sprung from masters marrying slaves. What became important was that they were any family. And that they didn’t sit around obsessing about race. They never really mention it.

When I grew up in St. Louis, I was in a Black world. I didn’t know any white people; if I knew them, I probably thought they were Black. The way my Black world was, the skin tones went from ivory to ebony, and so they were all people of color. We had our own complicated lives, people had love affairs, and there were hierarchies. This Black world had glamour and all this sophistication and a very complex society, and I wanted to reflect that. 

When I moved to Boston, all of a sudden I was in a white world, a really white world. That was shocking. 

BLVR: Were you in Boston around the time of the school busing riots?

KL: Yeah, I lived in Boston for… all the riots. [Laughs] 

BLVR: How did that affect your thinking about your future? Especially as a Black-embodied person?

KL: I was always trying to survive. My mother, who’s very much a fiery, radical thinker, was way ahead of her time. She moved to Boston and got her doctorate at Harvard. She wasn’t taking shit lying down, you know what I mean? She enrolled me in an elementary school where I was the only Black kid, and I was harassed every day. It was quite painful, but it was formative. I started hanging out with the misfits. I had my little posse: a Japanese friend, a Jewish friend, a couple of other loner types; we had strange connections. I learned to form alliances that were really about survival.

 

II. “DON’T THINK ABOUT HOW YOU LOOK IN THE PROCESS.”

BLVR: How did you settle on The Caveman’s Valentine as the next film you’d make after the success of Eve’s Bayou?

KL: Sam [Jackson] asked me to do it. I thought it would be really interesting to work with him again, and then I read the book [George Dawes Green’s 1994 novel of the same title] and it was really speaking my language! I loved that character Romulus Ledbetter. The experience was completely different for me because George Dawes Green had written the script. I had to bring my vision into someone else’s; finding my way into it was trickier. After I finished Eve’s Bayou, I didn’t know if I’d do another film. I had expressed myself completely. I could quit and never do anything else. When I dropped the mic on that movie, I did that! 

Caveman’s was a difficult movie for me for a whole variety of reasons. I’d just had a baby. I was emotional, and then there was the subject matter, and it was winter in Toronto and so it was incredibly cold. It was not an easy movie, but I loved it and I found that I could be in love with it. I loved working with Terence Blanchard on it—I loved the score, and it was a learning experience for me. I was learning a lot of things at once. When I finished that movie, I knew pretty quickly that if I was gonna do this film-directing at all, I was gonna have to do it again, and so I was interested in doing another. 

BLVR: Did you face any obstacles in getting the next movie made? How did Talk to Me come about?

KL: I faced a lot of obstacles, but the way that I have made a living over, probably, twenty-three or twenty-four years now is as a writer. I’ve probably written forty-five or fifty screenplays. It’s very, very difficult. And especially with the subject matter that I was attracted to, and not ever having a big hit. There were commercial projects that were presented to me. But I liked writing and so I wanted to do something I had written, and that was what I was really focused on. Someone asked me to do a rewrite polish of the Talk to Me script. I liked the script very much; I liked what the writers had done. I started working on it, and in the process I fell, like, madly, breathlessly in love with it. So it was like, I have to direct this. That ended up being the next one.

BLVR: Talk to Me is set in the 1970s, in Washington, DC. It was yet another time period for you, and it was set in a different city. It was like a whole other world.

KL: Well, we shot in Toronto again, but in the summertime. [Laughs] I loved working on Talk to Me. It was pure joy. I felt confident, for one thing. I’d done two movies, and I felt like I kinda knew how to direct. I loved the material, and I loved Don and Chiwetel and Taraji and Mike and Cedric—they were so much fun. In my first two films I was still facing this kind of psychological obstacle of: Can you really do this? By the time of Talk to Me, I found the joy in the process. And that film was so tonally different from the first two that I wanted to lean into that difference and have fun with it.

BLVR: I want to get into that, the confidence of it. You’ve taught a lot, so I’m wondering if, in your observations, this is something women struggle with uniquely because of the structure of our society, that we don’t come into the field with confidence?

KL: I think any director could struggle with that. I came in with a great deal of confidence, but things were hard. I didn’t know enough, in some ways, not to be confident until I did— [Laughs]

Confident is maybe the wrong word to use. What I try to teach my students is to lose self-consciousness. There is confidence in focus, and that is hard. If you think about yourself in the process, it gets in the way of the creativity. I would always say writing is being still enough to listen to what is flowing through you. And directing is being still enough to see and to be a part of the alchemy that is happening in front of you. What I try to get them to focus on is getting the weight off themselves, just to concentrate. Don’t think about how you look in the process. I think I was always good at that. But I found complete ease in that I was not self-conscious; I was relaxed; I found joy in the concentration. Even in the first one I was like that. But it all gelled by the third film. I can’t say that my female students aren’t very confident. Maybe they weren’t a long time ago, when I was teaching undergrad, but the fellows from Sundance and the female students that I’ve been teaching recently? They’re confident. 

BLVR: I love that you described that process as alchemy. I think there’s something to that; we can get caught up in worrying about what we look like. Your next film was Black Nativity. How did you get attached to that project?

KL: It’s funny that they’re all very me in a weird way. It was a challenge to take this very slender play by Langston Hughes and to try and make it a movie. But what I was bringing that was part of me at that moment was that my sister died. Which was an unimaginable, massive, catastrophic tragedy in my life. So I think I was working through that. And the film had a lot of emotion in it for me.

 

III. A GIFT AND A CHALLENGE

BLVR: What has it been like to develop Harriet?

KL: I feel like she’s a gift that has been dropped into my lap. I went in for what I thought was a general meeting with the producer, Daniela Taplin Lundberg. I thought she was talking to me about rewriting the script, but then I said, “Of course it would be much more interesting if I was writing and directing,” and then she said, “Well, that’s kind of what I’m talking about.” And then my heart kinda stopped for a second and I tried to play if off and be cool. I was suspicious at first because I didn’t know who was going to play Harriet. Taplin Lundberg showed me a picture of Cynthia Erivo and I thought, That could work. They’re not crazy. There was something real about that choice to me. I didn’t know anything about her. I had to hold on to my excitement and let them go through their process and then eventually, about six months later, they told me they would like me to write and direct it. I was over the moon. It’s been a tremendous gift and a tremendous challenge.

I did about six or seven months of pure research. I read every single book about Harriet Tubman, every book on the Underground Railroad and the Civil War, and just immersed myself in the history. This picture began to emerge of this woman—this makes me a bit emotional—that became very clear to me, like she was sitting next to me. I love her. When I met Cynthia, I didn’t know about her work in film; I hadn’t seen The Color Purple musical. One of the things that is completely exciting about her is that she is an athlete, kind of a superathlete; so was Harriet. And she is extremely petite; so was Harriet. I was looking at her West African–ness as being a good thing, too, because Harriet [also had that background]: you know, her relatives and such. And just physically, too, her cheekbones… I always ask my students about casting and directing in the moment-to-moment: Do you believe it? And I’m looking at her and thinking, I believe this. I’ve had some really good actor­-director experiences, but this was amazing. And I believed her every day.

BLVR: Where did you shoot? 

KL: We shot in Virginia for Maryland, which worked out really well. Virginia has its ghosts, you know? But the ghosts were necessary, because the ghosts are part of the story. History, especially in certain places, is not a dead thing. It was a wonderful, almost holy experience. We felt that Harriet was with us. 

BLVR: I remember reading an interview with Denzel Washington in which he talked about shooting Malcolm X, and he has a moment when he is reciting speeches of X’s that aren’t in the script; he’s in some kind of preternatural zone. I’ve heard that Halle Berry had a metaphysical moment like that when she played Dorothy Dandridge. Did anything like that happen for Cynthia or for anyone else on set?

KL: It definitely did. Sometimes there were miracles that happened while we were shooting at key moments in Harriet. Suddenly, you know, it’s been raining all day and the clouds part, and, like, miraculously, there’s a double rainbow and a sun ray is coming through and it’s captured at a pivotal point in her journey. It was like that.

BLVR: Is there anything about Harriet’s life that you uncovered in the script that isn’t widely known or that we’d be surprised about?

KL: Well, what’s widely known? What do people really know? They think they know. But even things that you hear: She was a spy for the Union Army. She led troops in battle. I mean, that’s incredible. She couldn’t read or write. But then you think, She couldn’t read or write and she led troops in battle?

She was so amazing physically and so badass; that’s something we wanted to bring to the film. But the thing that was a wonderful kismet for me was the degree to which she was a mystic. Harriet Tubman believed she was in a direct conversation with God and was really a Joan of Arc. She was guided to be able to lead people out of the South and into freedom, through woods and catchers, and whatever dangers lurked. Over and over again. I mean, this was an incredible woman.

One of the things that really sank in by doing the research and that is a very essential part of the story is that she was motivated by getting her family out. She was going back for her family, and she ended up bringing other people out.

BLVR: How will this film be different from most period dramas?

KL: I wouldn’t describe it as that. I’d say it’s an adventure film about the early life of the young, freedom-seeking Harriet Tubman. You know, she’s a superhero.

 

IV. HALF GROUNDED, HALF IN THE CLOUDS

BLVR: I am curious about Hollywood and your navigation of it for thirty-plus years. How have you maintained grounding?

KL: I think one of the keys was that I was also directing. Acting was different. When I was a young actress, I was extremely ambitious. When I started directing, I was also starting a family at the same time, so I always had a counterbalance, and that was having children.

My career was a part of my life, but it wasn’t my life. We love each other, my clan. My family has kept me incredibly grounded. When my sister passed away, I kind of took her children into our family. My sister and I were very close, and for many years we lived ten minutes away from each other and spent every weekend together, so the kids grew up together. But I took direct responsibility for her children as well as my children, trying to get them through school and onto the right paths. That has been a real occupation.

I’m very optimistic, like most people that are in film. We are ridiculously optimistic people. Half my day is incredibly grounded and the other half my head is in the clouds because I’m always imagining things. I really am so grateful to be a part of this industry, to still be in it, in this movement happening right now. It’s an amazing time to be in show business. I’m thrilled I never gave up.

BLVR: How did you meet your husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall?

KL: We met in a dance class—Frank Hatchett at Broadway Dance Center. I was young—twenty-one, maybe—so Vondie and I have known each other for a really long time. We didn’t start seriously dating until sometime after that, but we were friends. Vondie was older and had mystique; he was on Broadway, not right when we met but quickly after that. I was a fan; I admired him. We became friends and eventually started dating, and that was kind of that.

He has been my rock. He is part of the grounding. When I speak about family, I’m not talking just about my children; I’m talking about Vondie as well. He is the perfect type of guy to deal with somebody like me in this world. I often think, What would I have done if I had married a guy with petty career jealousy? That would have been awful, but we’ve always been down for each other and big supporters of each other’s careers. That’s been key to me being able to function in this business.

BLVR: And what has it been like to collaborate?

KL: It’s a gas. He’s been in four movies of mine; he wasn’t in Caveman, but he’s been in all the others. He’s such a great actor. He always brings gravitas ’cause he’s an actor’s actor, but he’s so playful too. Every role has been different. I really need and depend on and appreciate his notes and his thoughts on my writing. 

BLVR: Can you talk a little bit about how you find inspiration? Do you keep images or music that you return to?

KL: I’m never not inspired. It’s my great joy and I’m deeply grateful for it. I’m always making up stories or I hear a story and it sparks an idea. My problem is honing an idea or just finding one idea I want to focus on. I sometimes read a couple of books a week and I get a lot of inspiration from literature and reading about history. I stay pretty inspired. 

BLVR: As time moves on, have you noticed a pattern in your feelings about movies that you’ve directed? Do you look back and see any patterns for yourself and your practice?

KL: I’m very interested in the gray areas of humanity—what people are capable of, both great and terrible. Flawed people, inspiring people. I am interested in this blur between the spiritual and the physical. That definitely comes up over and over again. Sanity and insanity. Deep human emotions, friendship, love. I see a pattern, but it’s hard for me to articulate. But looking back at them all, they’re all me.

BLVR: I’ve been thinking about how over the last fifty years of Hollywood, every fifteen years or so there’s a so-called Black renaissance, and I know you’re probably bored of this question, but I’m curious to know your observations of these cycles, seeing that you’ve been part now of at least two of these moments. Eve’s Bayou came out in the mid-’90s and here we are in another cycle. I’m wondering what’s different for filmmakers of color in 2019 versus in 1999. What’s your opinion of this Black renaissance?

KL: I think this one’s real. I think they’ve all been real. It’s just that progress is so much slower than I thought it would be. But I think this is real because there are so many of us working at such a high level. The work has always been there; the artists have always been great.

I do believe we’re finally getting past a kind of crippling societal sexism that is absolutely ridiculous. It’s been holding us back from true greatness as a country. Like people’s pay: these things are basic. I’m hoping we’re really at a point of breaking through. Women are half of all people. It just makes no sense.

My sister always said, “Greatness in cultures can be defined by how they treat women and children,” and I really believe that. We can never really be great and be a sexist country. We can never be a great industry and be a sexist industry. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s taken a bit of reckoning, but we’re finally coming to a place of healing, and maybe atonement, and self-examination as far as that’s concerned. 

When I made Eve’s Bayou, it was before I began teaching. Since I’ve been teaching, I have had such incredible optimism because I’m constantly working with the next generation of filmmakers, and those people are incredible. They take no prisoners, they’re coming out of film school, they’re coming out of Sundance, and they are awesome, they’re varied, they’re colorful, they’re female, and they’re storytellers.

BLVR: When you think about your legacy, what kinds of impressions are your films leaving in the world about Black bodies in American culture?

KL: I never think of trying to make a statement about Blackness. Except that I’m here. We’re here. My voice is here. By being at the table and continuing to create, that’s it. That’s the statement; that’s what it is. Because what makes it interesting is having as many voices as we can have.

Awesomeness and fierceness and frailty, all of those things are important to me. How incredibly powerful we are, how incredibly frail we all are. How incredibly complicated and beautiful it is to be human. What we’ve done through the power of our will. Which can be incredible feats of heroism. Like Harriet Tubman. Or convincing yourself that something happened that didn’t. I’m interested in human beings and how our humanity intersects with what is godly, you know? We’re capable of incredible lasting beauty and of horrible things.

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