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‘Harriet’ Director Kasi Lemmons on the Significance of the Tubman $20 Bill: ‘Yes, We Are History’

The plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is back on track — and Kasi Lemmons, the director of 2019’s “Harriet,” is “thrilled” about it. 

“This was well thought out under Obama,” Lemmons told Variety. “But just to have Biden talk about fast-tracking it — that’s just such good news.

In April 2016, President Barack Obama’s secretary of the treasury, Jacob Lew, announced that Harriet Tubman would take the place of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. The change was to be part of a larger plan to make American money better reflect the history of the United States. The unveiling of the newly designed bills were to be unveiled in 2020, and were to be put into circulation later in the ‘20s.

The choice of Tubman, a heroic abolitionist who herself had escaped slavery, taking the place of Jackson, an enslaver, was the result of a contentious public conversation Lew had invited about wanting to put a woman on the $10 bill. The plan shifted from the $10 to the $20 after the explosive popularity of the musical “Hamilton,” which squelched the Treasury’s appetite to remove the newly beloved Alexander Hamilton.

Though the 2016 announcement was made late in the Obama administration’s tenure, meaning that the implementation of the change would be left to the next president, Lew expressed confidence at the time that Obama’s successor wouldn’t reject the substitution — nor would whoever it was disallow the new image on the back of the $10 bill of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony.

In an interview with the New York Times then, Lew said: “I don’t think somebody’s going to probably want to do that — to take the image of Harriet Tubman off of our money? To take the image of the suffragists off?”

Well, someone definitely did want to do that: In 2019, President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, scuttled the plan, saying the Tubman $20 bills wouldn’t go into circulation until 2028. Or, as Gene Sperling, Obama’s former economic adviser tweeted at the time, “Today Mnuchin pathetically announces that Tubman on $20 will be delayed till 2028 — meaning their goal is never.”

But under President Biden never has turned into as soon as possible.

Last week during a briefing, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration was “exploring ways to speed up” the Tubman $20, Lemmons said that the “Harriet” team — “our little movie group,” as she called them — “were giddy with the news, all of us.”

“Because we were so involved in her story,” said Lemmons about having immersed herself in the life of Harriet Tubman, “and we love her so much.”

“Harriet,” which had a long journey to the screen, was not only a box office success, but yielded two Academy Award nominations for Cynthia Erivo — one for best actress for her portrayal of Tubman, and one for co-writing the movie’s song “Stand Up.” Lemmons sees Tubman’s story as one “we should be so proud of, and celebrate.”

“African American history is American history,” Lemmons said. “And we celebrate this in February for one month. Nothing could be more speaking to our aspirations, and the way that we want to think about ourselves: self-reliant, courageous, independent, freedom fighter, justice seeker.”

Lemmons continued: “And it’s so fitting and so meaningful to so many women and girls and African Americans just to say: ‘Yes, we are history. Here it is every day on a $20 bill. This is it!’”

Psaki, speaking for Biden, seemed to agree — she said at the briefing that “it’s important that our money reflect the history and diversity of our country.”

As for Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson, Lemmons thinks it’s especially fitting. “I understand that our former president was a big fan of Andrew Jackson — but here’s this guy, an enslaver, as were many of  the founding fathers,” she said. “But he was also genocidal against indigenous Americans, and benefited from free labor of African Americans, as did so many people.

“Yeah, he can go!” Lemmons said with a laugh. “And let’s put her on the $20 bill.”

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