Birthdate: February 24, 1961
Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Kasi Lemmons (birthname: Karen Lemmons) was one of the first in a generation of Black women filmmakers to break through to commercial and artistic success. Lemmons made this leap with her highly acclaimed directorial-writing debut, Eve’s Bayou (1997), premiering at the Toronto Film Festival and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Winfield, Diahann Carroll, Jurnee Smollett, Debbi Morgan, and Vondie Curtis-Hall, and earning nearly $15 million globally, or five times production costs.
Prior to this, Lemmons had had a twelve-year running career in acting—and managing to appear in a string of movies that gained cult status--starting in network drama and then graduating to the level of Spike Lee for his second feature, School Daze (1988), with Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, and Ossie Davis, scoring over $14 million box office on a $6.5 million budget.
In the same year, Lemmons had a supporting role in the cult horror-comedy, Vampire’s Kiss, with Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, and Elizabeth Ashley. Lemmons landed a choice supporting role in director Jonathan Demme’s now-classic serial killer thriller, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), written by Ted Tally, and starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, and Ted Levine, and going on to win a rare sweep of all of the major Oscars and earn a stunning $273 million at the global box office.
Lemmons had another supporting role in writer-director Robert Townsend’s musical drama, The Five Heartbeats (1991), co-written by Keenen Ivory Wayans and starring Townsend, Michael Wright, Harry Lennix, Tico Wells, and Diahann Carroll, earning back its estimated $9 million budget. Part of another cult movie, Lemmons had a more prominent role in writer-director Bernard Rose’s supernatural horror thriller, Candyman (1992), with Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, and Xander Berkeley, with a box office tripling its $8 million costs.
Kasi Lemmons joined filmmaker Rusty Cundieff’s hip-hop mockumentary, Fear of a Black Hat (1993), premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and featuring Cundieff, Larry B. Scott, and Mark Christopher Lawrence, followed by a cop role in the John Woo-directed action vehicle (marking Woo’s U.S. debut, and the first Hollywood studio movie directed by a Chinese or Hong Kong director), Hard Target (1993), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Lance Henriksen, grossing over $74 million worldwide.
Writer-director David C. Johnson’s drama, Drop Squad (1994), with Eriq La Salle, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Ving Rhames, marked Lemmons’ last movie acting assignment before she shifted into filmmaking. Lemmons’ penultimate acting role was in director Scott Winant’s ‘Til There Was You (1997), starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dylan McDermott, and Sarah Jessica Parker, but tanking at the box office with a mere $3.5 million take.
Kasi Lemmons directed her second feature, the George Dawes Green-written The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), once again with Samuel L. Jackson as a star, with Colm Feore and Aunjanue Ellis, but failing at the box office (under $1 million gross on a $13.5 million budget). Director Lemmons turned to the script by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa about a real-life D.C. talk-radio personality, Talk to Me (2007), starring the impressive cast of Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, and Vondie Curtis Hall, receiving strong reviews and grossing $4.8 million worldwide.
In a departure from her new directing career, Lemmons appeared in support in the anthology drama, Disconnect (2012), with Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Andrea Riseborough, and Alexander Skarsgård, and earning $1.5 million in limited release. As writer-director, Kasi Lemmons adapted Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, Black Nativity (2013), with a cast led by Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, and Jennifer Hudson, but the movie failed to make back its $17.5 million budget.
As co-writer and director, Lemmons turned to American history for her biopic saga on Harriet Tubman, Harriet (2019), starring the Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe, and premiering at the Toronto film festival before a successful commercial run earning over $43 million globally. Adapting producer-writer Anthony McCarten’s script, Lemmons directed another biopic (about Whitney Houston), I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022), with Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, and Clarke Peters.
Born in St. Louis, Kasi Lemmons was raised by parents Dorothy Othello (psychologist) and Francis Lemmons (biology teacher). Lemmons’ parents divorced when she was eight; she moved with her mother to Newton, Massachusetts, in order for Dorothy to pursue her doctorate in education at Harvard. Dorothy remarried when Lemmons was nine years old and changed her name to Dorothy Frauenhofer.
After graduating from the private Commonwealth School in Boston, Lemmons used the acting training she had gained in summer programs via New York University’s School of Drama’s Circle in the Square Program and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, then UCLA (and its renowned theater arts program), and then The New School of Social Research Film Program. Lemmons was given an honorary degree as a Doctor of Humane Letters from Salem State College in 1998. Lemmons has been married to actor Vondie Curtis-Hall since 1995; the couple has two children, actor Henry Hunter Hall and Zora Hall. Her height is 5’ 9”.
Roots: As a guest on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” Kasi Lemmons discovered that her patrilineal great-great-great-grandfather was thought to be born in Africa and transported by slave ship to the U.S. in the early 1800s. The family name is Africa was apparently “Lemons.” Lemmons also discovered on the show that she’s a distant relative of actor Kevin Bacon.
Professor: Lemmons serves as an Associate Arts Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Opera: Kasi Lemmons adapted writer Charles Blow’s novel, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, as an opera, with composer Terence Blanchard, premiering at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019, and then at the Metropolitan Opera in 2021—marking the Met’s first opera by a Black composer.