Harriet Tubman isn’t quite finished with Russell Simmons.
The revered escaped slave, abolitionist and Civil War heroine—who was tastelessly lampooned in a supposedly comic sex video that overwhelmed the Aug. 15 launch of Simmons’s All Def Digital channel—is suddenly the subject of a respectful miniseries that he hopes to sell to HBO.
“Harriet Tubman is at HBO now,” said the multimedia hip-hop and fashion mogul, whose inaugural video on ADD prompted widespread outrage, an extended apology tour, and no end of self-inflicted grief. “It’s got to get out and get all the right filmmakers and writers.”
The 56-year-old Simmons, who recently negotiated a first-look deal with HBO that gives the premium channel the right to bid preemptively on his television and movie projects for the next two years, somehow contracted food poisoning a day after receiving Adweek’s Brand Genius award during a glitzy dinner at Manhattan’s Capitale Sept. 25. It was a nasty surprise for a zealous vegan and health devotee who attributed his bad luck to the presence of swordfish in an otherwise chaste vegetable patty. “Harry Belafonte told me I had mercury poisoning,” Simmons confided.
He has, in any case, plenty on his plate: In January, Simmons turned his life upside down, leaving Manhattan and East Hampton behind in order to set up shop in West Hollywood, where he lives not far from his suite of offices in Sunset Plaza and, not coincidentally, in close proximity to the two young daughters he shares with his ex-wife, reality show star and model-turned-fashion designer Kimora Lee Simmons.
In his bid to conquer Hollywood, he’s busy recruiting a cast, crew and a studio for Cain and Abel, a rap opera on film with a story by Omar Epps and a screenplay by Sticky Fingaz (aka Kirk Jones); he’s overseeing Global Grind, his news and entertainment site, and Argyleculture, his millennial men’s fashion line in partnership with Macy’s; partnering with Awesomeness TV phenom Brian Robbins on ADD and record mogul Steve Rifkind on All Def Music; presiding over a financial services company that offers the RushCard to folks who otherwise might have trouble qualifying for credit; pursuing philanthropy and political activism such as his support for New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (“because he’s the most progressive”) and kicking in $10,000 to a $100,000 online fundraising drive for Life Camp, a program to reduce gang violence near the Queens neighborhood where he grew up; and meditating and practicing yoga daily.
Simmons hopes to demonstrate to the entertainment industry that diversity equals prosperity. “There is a hole in Hollywood, where the financial potential of integration is not being explored in the way that I would like to explore it,” he said. “There’s a hole in the market, and even though Hollywood is very progressive and full of sweet people, there is more integration on Jerry Springer than there is in these movies.”
So Simmons—whose estimated net worth tops $300 million—has been staying up late in recent weeks reading screenplays and books about Tubman, and has even consulted Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis about his prospective miniseries. “I talked to her a lot about the role, and she sent me a script,” Simmons said. “I can’t say I’m going to use her. But she’s a person I know could do it.”
It goes without saying that his new passion for the Tubman project—which so far lacks a screenplay as well as HBO’s commitment (“It doesn’t seem to be something we plan to develop,” says a spokesman)—can be traced to his crucible of the last seven weeks. For a pop-culture icon who embraces and even revels in controversy (“I kind of like pissing people off,” he conceded), the near-universal condemnation has been “a little bit” traumatizing. It persuaded him for the first time in three decades of presenting rap music, poetry and comedy—much of it, by his own admission, vulgar and offensive—to disavow “a piece of content.”
“I pulled it down within ten minutes of understanding how hurt and upset people were, because black women are so underserved in terms of history and social figures,” Simmons explained. “Harriet Tubman is such a central figure. If it was anyone else but Harriet Tubman, it probably would have gone under the radar.”
He was still explaining himself and seeking absolution on a recent installment of the Arsenio Hall Show, where he called the Tubman video “probably the worst idea of my life” but lashed out at “do-nothing Negroes” who “were very angry and kept talking… They tried to turn me into Paula Deen.” Simmons, in our chat, declined to name his “do-nothing” detractors, but he no doubt had in mind former Vogue editor at large Andre’ Leon Talley, who tweeted that Simmons should be banned from the front row of fashion shows. “Fyi,” Simmons tweeted back, “ive done more for blacks in fashion and gay rights then you, can i get a break/ seat?”
To me, he elaborated: “I’m not sensitive to celebrities who didn’t do shit for their whole life and suddenly they want to expend energy proving their blackness by attacking me. When they had a chance to help black people in their jobs or in their level of affluence, they didn’t use those resources to make a difference. I didn’t see them sleeping next to me at Occupy Wall Street”—a reference to Simmons’s near-nightly vigils at Lower Manhattan’s Zucotti Park when the spontaneous protest against America’s plutocracy (of which he, arguably, is a member) got under way two years ago.
Meanwhile, back at HBO: “I was going to do Frederick Douglass, and they were very excited about it,” Simmons told me. “The Frederick Douglass story is a fantastic story. There’s nothing wrong with it—and my kids [daughters Ming Lee and Aoki Lee] are direct descendants”—apparently through Simmons’s ex-wife, whose father likes to claim that his grandmother was a first cousin of the legendary orator, abolitionist and social reformer. “The Frederick Douglass story is about a very compassionate special American. But Harriet Tubman is more of a fighter. All my movies have a lot of edge to them, and Harriet Tubman is full of edge. I feel qualified to do Harriet Tubman. I feel my input is going to really, really matter.”
A New Yorker through and through, Simmons said he’s enjoying his new West Coast existence. “I have TV projects all over town. I have film projects I’m working on like crazy,” he said. “I moved to LA because of my kids, but I also moved to LA to tell stories and I’m having a lot of fun. I get up every morning at 6 o’clock, meditate with my kids from 6:15 to 6:35, I go up the hill to take my kids to school and I come back down and go to work, then I go to yoga at the end of the day. I feel like I’m living in the fucking Hamptons!”
And, of course, there’s often a stunning model or actress on his arm, and this particular night was no different. Ending our conversation, Simmons announced: “I’m going on a date right now. How about that?”