Kasi Lemmons on black representation in Hollywood and the 'shocking' story of a studio exec who wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman

"I feel strongly that we need to be celebrating African American history as history all year long," Kasi Lemmons wrote in an op-ed for Variety this week. "We need to be celebrating all the time because African American history is American history."

Lemmons is one of several notable members of Hollywood's black community who appears in They've Gotta Have Us, a contemplative and insightful new Netflix series about African Americans' contributions to film that's well worth watching during Black History Month or at any other point this year.

"African Americans have been working forever in this industry, and made it what it is in a real way. And going way, way back, at least to the '30s," Lemmons, who helmed the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet to critical acclaim last fall, tells Yahoo Entertainment during a recent interview promoting the Simon Frederick-directed series from Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY distribution banner (watch above). "It's just important to remind people who we are and why we're here and what we're doing."

Before making her directorial debut with the 1997 indie breakout Eve's Bayou, Lemmons worked in front of the camera, with acting credits including The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Candyman (1992) and Fear of a Black Hat (1993). "When I was coming up as an actress, I was still doing a lot of the best friend parts. The kind of almost generic 'black girl best friend part' I'd call it. That was my career. I wasn't that mad at it, because I was working, but I was unfulfilled."

Seeing what Spike Lee had accomplished with his directorial debut, 1986's She's Gotta Have It, though, changed everything for her. "With She’s Gotta Have It, there was a big shift in thinking," she writes in Variety. After making her debut with Eve's Bayou, she'd go on to direct films like The Caveman's Valentine (2001), Talk to Me (2007) and Black Nativity (2013).

Director Kasi Lemmons with actors Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway on the set of her film HARRIET, a Focus Features release.   Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features
Director Kasi Lemmons with actors Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway on the set of her film Harriet. (Photo: Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

Lemmons has seen positive change over her three-plus decades in the industry, and agrees with David Oyelowo's statement in They've Gotta Have Us that there’s been a renaissance in recent years when it comes to black representation in Hollywood. She points to Selma's Oscars Best Picture nomination, Moonlight's Best Picture win and the box office success (and awards accolades) of films like Get Out and Black Panther as proof.

"I think we've definitely gotten to the point where onscreen representation is a lot better," she says. "All of these moments have helped."

You can add Lemmons's own Harriet to the list of films making up a movement. Though one story that came out of that film's PR tour illustrated how shortsighted the industry has been over the years. Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard told the Los Angeles Times that when he first began pitching the film some 25 years ago, one studio executive suggested the eponymous enslaved woman-turned-abolitionist be played by none other than... Julia Roberts.

"It's hard to believe, right? And quite shocking on one level," says Lemmons, who is also a film professor at New York University. "But on another level, we see that all the time. And we've seen it pretty recently, in some ways that have been pretty tone deaf."

And it's true: In the past five years alone, we've seen whitewashing controversies launch from the movies Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange (2016), Gods of Egypt (2016) and Ghost in the Shell (2017), among others.

"I've been in the business for a long time, waiting for a big movement," Lemmons says. "And maybe we have to consciously do more to be part of the revolution. I mean, my way to be part of the revolution was to stay working, to teach the next generation of filmmakers, teach and mentor. I don't know what more has to be done to shake it up."

They've Gotta Have Us is currently streaming on Netflix.

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