“Harriet” premieres on campus

Debra Martin Chase ’77 stands in the New York Room of Mary Woolley Hall before screening “Harriet” for the Mount Holyoke College community.

By Christian Feuerstein

Successful and trailblazing producer Debra Martin Chase ’77 has had a whirlwind few weeks launching the new movie “Harriet,” a biopic of slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman. 

“I’ve been on the road for the last six weeks,” she said, laughing. “We’ve had a good time in launching the movie and supporting the movie. We had three premiers in the U.S., the big one at the Smithsonian in Washington [the National Museum of African American History and Culture] … and New York and L.A.” 

On November 19, Chase was on campus, showing “Harriet” to students, faculty and staff, with a talk with the audience post-screening. 

“Mount Holyoke has a special place in my heart,” she said before the event. “That’s why I’m here screening ‘Harriet’ and meeting with students, because it’s a very special place.” 

“Harriet” has garnered critical raves. Richard Roeper, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “The crackling historical fiction frames [Tubman’s] harrowing rescue missions in fast-paced, quick-cut style.” The movie is also a box-office success, making $39 million at the domestic box office as of December 1. The film has been nominated for two Golden Globe awards, for best actress in a motion picture, drama and best original song in a motion picture. 

Chase’s Harriet Tubman journey began in 2014 when she read her friend Gregory Allen Howard’s screenplay about Tubman. The film went into production in Virginia in 2018. What helped bring the movie to audiences, Chase said, was more representation from women and people of color in the entertainment industry behind the camera. 

“I mean, we still have a long way to go for sure, but it’s the best it’s ever been since I’ve been in the business,” Chase said. “And part of that is [studios] finally, finally, finally recognize that racial diversity, gender diversity is good business. ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Black Panther’ were huge game changers. 

“What helped ‘Harriet’ in particular was ‘Hidden Figures,’ because that was another period movie starring black women, that did really well financially and critically,” she said. 

The liberal arts education she received at Mount Holyoke uniquely prepared her for the entertainment industry, Chase said.

“I tell stories for a living, right?” she said. “And I tell different kinds of stories. And so the fact that my background is diverse, that I know something about a lot of things, is enough to steer me in different directions. The fact that I’m intellectually curious, I think is a huge advantage because I’m willing to entertain and dive into any story to see whether or not I think there’s something there.

“I just go back to intellectual curiosity. It is a huge asset — not just in filmmaking, but in life. It keeps you interesting, it keeps you vibrant, it keeps you dynamic.”

Chase hoped that students would gain vital lessons from “Harriet.” 

“There are two things that I think are important in the movie,” Chase said. “The first is that you can’t control where you’re born or your circumstances, but you can control who you become and what you do with your life. And Harriet Tubman was a woman who could not read, who could not write, who was born destined to be a slave. But who decided, no, that’s not going to be my path, and she changed it. 

“And the second is that in these times that are so divisive and ugly, I think a lot of us are feeling hopeless and helpless. And hopefully Harriet’s story will remind all of us that one person can make a big difference. That we each have a voice, that we each should use it, and we should stand up for what we believe in.”