On this day in 2019, Harriet was released in theaters. This incredible biopic about an incredible woman – Harriet Tubman – took an incredible filmmaker. And the filmmaker who made Harriet happen is Kasi Lemmons.
Kasi’s career spans over three decades, making an enormous impact on the film world – especially in its representation of Black characters and stories. Born in St. Louis, (MO), Kasi entered into the film world the way that many great directors do: by acting. As a kid, she attended New York University’s School of Drama Circle in the Square program, which trained children who wanted to become professional actors. During this program, Kasi gained access to the studios of some of the most prestigious acting teachers like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.
From her late teens to her late thirties, Kasi performed in a number of popular television series including Murder, She Wrote and ER. She was also featured in several successful films including Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Candyman (1992) (fun fact, the remake of this film was directed by another of FF2’s favorite SWANs, Nia DaCosta). During her time as an actor, Kasi attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but later transferred to UCLA to major in history. It seems that Kasi’s affinity for the arts, with her simultaneous interest in her country’s history, would go on to shape her as a filmmaker.
Kasi’s debut feature film debut behind the camera was Eve’s Bayou in 1997.
Kasi’s debut feature film behind the camera – as a writer/director – was Eve’s Bayou in 1997. Eve’s Bayou is a Southern Gothic drama that explores the complex dynamics of a wealthy Creole family as seen through the eyes of a young girl named Eve. With strong performances from powerhouse actors like Samuel L. Jackson, the film deftly explores themes of family, spirituality, and Creole identity, making it a landmark in Black cinema and a touching exploration of identity and secrets. Needless to say, Eve’s Bayou was quite the film debut.
Kasi’s talents as a director shone once again with the release of Harriet in 2019. This biographical film brought to life the extraordinary story of Harriet Tubman, an iconic figure in American history who led countless slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Kasi’s direction, combined with Cynthia Erivo’s powerful performance as Harriet, created a deeply moving and inspirational film that truly did Harriet Tubman justice.
Most recently, Kasi directed Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Most recently, Kasi directed Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. This is a biopic about the life and career of Whitney Houston. With a brilliant and moving performance from Naomi Ackie as Whitney, and the beauty of Whitney’s music serving as the heartbeat of the film, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a worthy tribute to one of the greatest singers of all time. Though other films have tried to tell Whitney’s story, they have focused on the more tragic aspects of her life. What makes Kasi’s film stand out is that, while it does not shy away from the difficult times Whitney faced, it is ultimately meant to highlight her incredible impact on this world as an artist.
Kasi is a unique filmmaker because she has a strong drive for representing history and Black stories in particular. But it’s also clear that she has a distinct passion for the arts and the power of art in its many forms. These combined have led to films with impacts that have gone way beyond the screen.
© Julia Lasker (11/1/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s 2007 Chat with Kasi about Talk to Me.
Read Giorgi Plys-Garzotto’s review of Harriet here.
Take in all the quals on Kasi’s IMDb page.
Watch Eve’s Bayou here.
Watch Harriet here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Naomi Ackie in I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY’s recreation of Whitney Houston’s triumphant performance at Super Bowl XXV (1991). Kudos to Naomi and Kasi for capturing this iconic moment. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2K5FR0A
Bottom Photo: 12 years after their first meet-up in Chicago, Jan congratulates Kasi on her 2019 NYWIFT MUSE Award. Photo Credit: Amelie Lasker (12/10/19)