Lessons In Chemistry is an AppleTV+ Original series based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Bonnie Garmus. The series has a simple premise in the beginning. Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) is a female chemist in the 1950s whose dream of pursuing science was cut short by the patriarchal systems of the time. However, when you watch the series directed by Sarah Adina Smith and written by Lee Eisenberg (who also serves as showrunner), there is so much more at play. There is love, grief, pride, and joy, and the complexity of human relationships and bigotry that pervades society. To put it simply, the series captures the dynamism of a life restrained and the resiliency that builds. But while Zott is the series’ protagonist, one character is an emotional and powerful standout of the series: Harriet, played by Aja Naomi King.
Often, stories tackling sexism and the patriarchy in the 1950s ignore the oppression that the white female protagonist faces is still experienced through privilege and that pushing for equality looks different at the intersection of race and gender. While I expected this from Lessons In Chemistry, I was quickly proven wrong when Aja Naomi King entered the narrative as Harriet.
A mother and paralegal, we meet Harriet as Calvin’s neighbor in a majority Black neighborhood. Like other neighborhoods and communities of Black people that have been targeted when they find success, the city is set to decimate it by building a highway through its center. Harriet’s role in this story is to showcase what life is like as a Black woman in the 1950s, highlighting racial inequity as much as the lack of gender equality, and be a vital part of Elizabeth’s community and safety net as they talk about dreams, motherhood, and more. We got the chance to talk with Aja Naomi King about her role in the series and what it means to play a character as dynamic as Harriet.
But the Harriet in the Apple Original series is different than the woman in the book, which is why Aja Naomi King felt attracted to the role. When asked about what brought her to the project, she responded, “Well, I love the book, but Harriet, as I exist in the series, does not exist in the same way in the book. When I talked to our showrunner [Lee Eisenberg] and was able to connect with Brie [Larson], they really emphasized how they wanted to explore this whole other world in a truer context of the time period that we were delving into. I just loved the story they wanted to tell. I was actually really surprised that they were feeling bold enough to dive into this story, this true story of how this community was decimated by the creation of the freeway. This is a story that I was actually not familiar with before we started shooting, and our cultural consultant, Dr. Shamell Bell, was able to give us so much insight into this neighborhood.”
That insight into the thriving neighborhood of Sugar Hill, which was annexed, helps not only build Harriet into a dynamic character but also helps situate the story in a larger historical context. King continued to explain the importance of showing the neighborhood and its fate on screen. “It was an affluent African American community, a thriving place filled with music and laughter—while movie stars were living there. Ray Charles lived there. Hattie McDaniel lived there. And it was wiped out through the use of eminent domain. It was a hard-fought neighborhood because of the restrictive covenants [around race] that existed [at the time]. So, even the Black people being able to get into that area was a fight. So, to see it about to be taken away, I love that is where Harriet’s story begins.
“[For her], you fought to create this community, and now, someone’s trying to take it away. We want to tell the story of this woman’s fight to protect it at all costs. I was shocked at the magnitude of the story they wanted to give me in this series, and they really upheld that with such beautiful writing. And we get to understand so many different facets of this woman. [Harriet] is truly a fully realized human being, and I’m grateful that it wasn’t like some side thought, like, oh, Harriet’s over there. Someone else is having a conversation and then is like, ‘Oh, did you see Harriet?’ ‘Yeah, she was doing something with some signs,’ like it was [in the book]. Which just made it feel so valuable to me to be a part of telling that story and honoring this community’s perseverance. That felt really special. So, coming into that was a really unique opportunity because the collaboration was genuine.”
Harriet’s importance is that she’s not one note. She is a civil rights activist, she is an educated woman working in a law office, and she is a mother. As we see in Zott’s story, Harriet stands as an important exploration of what being a woman means and how diverse the experience is across all women and mothers. There is one scene in particular where Elizabeth is struggling with post-partum depression after having Mad, her daughter. The motherly attachment that women are supposed to form doesn’t come, and she begins to hate herself for it. Then, she reaches out to Harriet, and as she speaks to the audience, she gives Elizabeth permission to be imperfect. To be depressed. To not be in love with motherhood.
Getting into character for this moment came naturally to King; as a mother herself, she also understands how important it is to showcase something that isn’t just the “joys of motherhood.” King explains, “As a mother myself, it felt very, very real and very necessary. It’s something that I think, in telling the story, has been done very well, exposing all the facets of what it is to be a woman. The idea that motherhood is this magical thing and so wonderful, that’s not reality.”
Motherhood isn’t clean and sterile. It is messy as much as it is joyful. And when postpartum is in play, the day can feel like you won’t make it to the next one. King adds, “[Motherhood] can be terrifying. You may want to throw your child out the window. All of that is very real and doesn’t make you any less of a woman, person, or human being. It’s just, it’s reality, and no one needs to see a false idea or false narrative of a woman.”
Aja Naomi King took the time to share her own vulnerability as a mother, “Now, of course, there are women out there who do get this insane burst of energy. And you know what? I was not one of those women. I struggled with the language of what they must feel. It’s really important and valid to show that we don’t have to be these perfect specimens, that not everything always works out the way that we think it is supposed to, and that womanhood can mean so many different things to different people. And every expression of it is right and true. So, I also really love that scene. To see that kind of, and [Brie] did that so well, [showing] the terror, you know, the shame, of not feeling the way people felt in a time when there wasn’t such open dialogue. And that’s what makes [Elizabeth] kind of a unicorn in that way, that she’s expressing something that she knows she’s not [supposed] to, but also feeling: ‘Something’s wrong with me.'”
She continued, “The other thing that I loved about that was to be able to have someone validate her experience. [Harriet is able to say], ‘Okay, I have two kids, and I know exactly how you feel. This is actually not a unique thing to be ashamed of or terrified of.’ In the experience of mothering, it is such an important story to share. You know, it was one of my favorite things about [Lessons in Chemistry], actually. We were telling the story of a woman who says it. Brie says it in one of the earlier episodes where she’s with Calvin, and she says, ‘You can be a mother, or you can be anything else.’ And it really speaks to the limitations of that and what it took for these women because they’re both mothers, but they’re also struggling with the patriarchy. Trying to define themselves in people’s limited ideas of how we’re supposed to exist in the world. And having this ambition to do something more and having the grounding to know that there is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve more.”
Harriet’s life in the series also expands on itself when her husband returns from being stationed in the military overseas. Having to effectively be a single parent, an activist, and have a career is a full life. But Harriet still wants to be more, do more, and achieve more. Something she and her husband don’t always see eye to eye with. But instead of having one conversation and not mentioning it again, the series shows their marriage as a conversation, authentically bouncing back and forth with each other, always communicating.
About this part of Harriet’s life, Aja Naomi King explained, “It just felt so incredible because they felt so real. And I really appreciate it. It wasn’t just one scene; it wasn’t just one conversation. That was the thing that I appreciated about it. [The showrunner] wasn’t like, oh, Harriet and her husband had this conversation this one time, and now everything’s fine, and we’re not going to talk about them anymore. You see the continued struggle in their marriage. Like, yes, he wants to support her, but at the same time, he won’t make himself small in the way she was forced to make herself small—you know, and stay home and take care of the kids while also working a job and galvanizing the neighborhood. The things that being a woman and mothering entails, which is never just one thing. It’s like doing ten things at one time, and he doesn’t know that experience because of the expectations of what it is to be a man, albeit he is a Black man. So, he is fighting against a whole other set of expectations in trying to determine his way forward.”
She continued, “I love that you see it in that scene in the kitchen where she says to him that these are things that I’m going to do, and I’m not going to pull back from that. But then you see that this is a conversation that comes up with them again and again. Because he does a good job, he is only off nights, and she is left holding the bag. Then, you see it again when she has the idea for the sit-in. You see it time and time again. I really appreciate that because I felt like we were reflecting a true marriage. This couple exists in this time within this [civil rights] movement that was putting pressure on them… They both want to exist and create a safe place for their children, but they’re doing it in two very different ways. Both ways are valid, and both ways are what ground them in who they are and how they choose to exist in the world. I felt like the storytelling really honored our characters.”
Lessons in Chemistry is a series that strives to tell a story about womanhood, work, activism, and trying to thrive in a world that doesn’t even want you to survive in it. In that story, Aja Naomi King’s Harriet is vital to understanding the ways in which womanhood and race intersect, but more importantly, to showcase that our identities are never just one thing. They are dynamic, like our lives, and how we grow is by embracing it all.
Lessons in Chemistry is streaming now exclusively on AppleTV+.