The determined struggles of true-life heroes, whose tales look to resonate loudly this awards season, were at the heart of Focus Features’ Contenders NY presentation Saturday at the DGA Theater in New York City.
For Harriet writer/director Kasi Lemmons (who helmed both Eve’s Bayou and Talk To Me) the task was to offer up the grueling human struggle of one of U.S. history’s most famous figures: abolitionist Harriet Tubman. But Lemons didn’t really see the embodiment of Tubman until meeting singer/actress Cynthia Erivo (Tony and Grammy winner for Broadway’s The Color Purple), whom she could truly picture playing the American hero who escaped slavery and led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
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“Having Cynthia is everything,” Lemmons told the appreciative DGA Theater crowd. “Harriet is very much a woman and almost a superhero and was so important to so many people and I thought, if I had a meeting with [Erivo], and don’t see it, I’d fix the script and move on.” But after their meeting in Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room, “the Harriet that had become so clear to me—there she was. Cynthia’s an extreme athlete and a marathoner and a singer, and looking at her I could see it in the force of her nature.”
Producers Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg spent years doing the research that led up to the triumphant result. “It’s hard to believe—but not hard to believe—that it’s taken five and a half years to get this made but the world has changed in that time,” said Chase. “We’ve seen successes: Wonder Woman, Black Panther and most successfully, Hidden Figures. But [Lemons] was the magic and the glue here.”
And Lemmons, who considers this very much a “Joan of Arc-type story,” acknowledged the relevance it has to current events. “We need the story of a woman who accomplishes so much from sheer will. We need to be able to see what someone else was able to accomplish in a turbulent time and look up from our phones and think, ‘Can I be that brave?’”
Bravery is also central to the more modern David vs. Goliath tale Dark Waters. The film stars Mark Ruffalo as Ohio lawyer Robert Bilott, who took on DuPont—a client his own firm had once hoped to represent—in a pro bono 20-year battle after it was discovered that the Chem giant dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia that it knew would cause a roster of diseases to the local population. With echoes of Ruffalo’s Oscar-nominated turn in the 2015 Best Picture winner, Spotlight, Bilott took on a seemingly unwinnable task that included proving DuPont’s famed coating, Teflon, also contained toxic elements.
“There are garbage cans all over the nation now full of Teflon pans,” said Ruffalo (also a producer on the film) with a smile, citing messages he’s gotten from early viewers of the film. Quoting some of those messages he’s seen he added, “‘Thanks a lot; my wife’s in the kitchen literally throwing away all our cookware.’”
The film’s lauded director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) took his inspiration for Dark Waters from the paranoia movie thrillers of the 1970s. “This is something I’d never tackled before as a director but it hearkens back to those kinds of brooding whistleblower films I’ve always loved,” Haynes said. “It starts in this happily shuttered world of the post-Reagan environment that Rob Bilott is in and step by step, he sees the world differently and we end up in the paranoia of these systems we’re all embedded in. People now want to see a grown-up movie that assesses real issues that have global and environmental consequences.”
Those issues are still at play, perhaps proving the necessity of Dark Waters. As co-producer Christine Vachon added, “There’s a little bit of chatter that DuPont is continuing to maintain there is no proof of” the dangers of Teflon, or of the chemical PFOA cited the film. But has the company responded to what will inevitably be the PR nightmare that is Dark Waters? “Crickets,” said Ruffalo. Added Haynes, “I hear their stocks aren’t doing well.”
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