I recently had the opportunity to chat with Harriet screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard (“Ali,” “Remember the Titans”) about his approach to writing, what he discovered over the years while writing Harriet and the impact faith had on her journey.
What is your approach to the writing process?
I look for underdog stories to tell you the truth. Those things always work. I think that’s number one. I got in this racket to write inspirational stories about black folks. When I broke in 25 years ago, there were very few black movies. Usually about 1 a year. Spike (Lee) preceded me and John (Singleton) by about four years. I call that the “new wave”. He (Spike) ushered in the new wave of black cinema 30 years ago. Shortly after that, Singleton came in and he was part of a new wave as well. But there was still usually about one (black film) a year. I was breaking in as a screenwriter, so I didn’t have a movie to show for it – but Harriet was the first assignment I got. They loved it, and that’s when I got the cold reality that even though a studio might love a script – doesn’t mean they’re going to make the movie. That was kind of a rude awakening to me. I thought if you loved the script, you make the movie. Then I found out they have hundreds of movies, all the studios do, and they make very few of them.
The thing is there was only Spike and Singleton making that one black movie a year, chances of me getting Harriet made were slim and none. People look at it now, in this context, where there’s so many diverse voices in television and film and say this is right. They have no idea what it was like to try and push something and get this made over 20 years. You have no idea the wall that was up in Hollywood.
How did you approach writing about one of the most recognized names in history?
There was no wikipedia and no internet when I started. So I read books. There wasn’t a lot of scholarship about her. It was mostly children or young adult books, which also included a lot of myths. I tried to pick through all of that. This was about personhood. One of the major things that slavery did was strip a human of their personhood. You became like a thing. Her arch in this movie is that she became a person and declared herself to be a person. That she would make her own decisions and she counted. That was pretty revolutionary at that time, certainly was for a woman as well.
Did you discover unknown nuggets while researching her history, and did it shift your view of Harriet?
Of course. I was really surprised (and this didn’t come out until later) she was married and married to a free man. Slavery was complicated in Maryland, such a high percentage of black people in Maryland were free. It was complicated, she married a free man and he was saving up to buy her freedom. That I found surprising.
How important was it to portray elements of faith throughout the film?
Faith is very important because that was one of the primary drivers for Harriet. That she had faith. In general, faith, probably more than anything else saved us being an enslaved people. Without faith I just don’t think we would have survived it. She felt like this was not real Christianity. What they were preaching, the power structures that supported the institution of slavery, perverted Christianity. Because slaves for the most part were illiterate, so they could read or makeup a passage. You can cherry pick the Bible or any other religious book for things that will support what you want.
The religious cannon is not necessarily cohesive. So they picked the part that said obey your master, that’s the thing they were shoving down their throats. What Christianity really is, is love – more than anything else. Her faith was very, very important. It fueled her.
If Harriet’s $20 bill is ever released, what will you do with yours?
I would probably frame it. On our Mt. Rushmore is King is there with Fannie Lou Hammer, probably Mohammed Ali and certainly Harriet. They’re our greatest black icons. Did she know that then? No, of course not. Could she have ever imagined she would be there? Of course she couldn’t, she was just trying to help people. Ms. Harriet was something very amazing.
These days it seems we’re at a crossroads in our nation, especially in terms of faith. Faith is again being used to exclude and other people. How do you think this film speaks to today’s current situation?
We’re definitely at a crossroads. No question about that. Harriet reminds people what Christianity really supposed to be about, and thats love. She had a great love for people she was freeing and felt they should be free to enjoy the fruits that she had.
Harriet opens in theaters nationwide, November 1, 2019.