Her time has come. While many thought the definitive tribute to historical heroine Harriet Tubman would be having her replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, it is, in fact, Kasi Lemmons’ powerful and poignant portrait of the woman they called “Moses” in her latest film, simply called “Harriet.”
Filmed geographically not far from Tubman’s real home in Dorchester County, Maryland, “Harriet” was shot primarily in neighboring Virginia’s countryside.
Through the authentic landscape, period costumes (by Paul Tazewell) and the incredible cast, led by Tony Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo in the titular role, “Harriet” virtually transports one back in time to the 19th century in the height of slavery, and humanizes the woman who freed more than 1,000 enslaved people on the Underground Railroad.
“This script itself was written 20 years ago, another ten to get here and three from when they met me,” Erivo said. “I think that now, where we are in the world, this is the right time to see a woman in the center of her story with agency, being a badass. We just haven’t seen it.
“I feel that with Harriet’s story, a lot of it is in the pages of the books that we read,” she said, sharing an interview with co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays William Still.
Still was an African-American abolitionist whose Philadelphia-based Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society gave refuge to the newly free Tubman. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, businessman, writer, historian and civil rights activist, Still directly aided fugitive slaves and kept records of the people in order to help reunite families in freedom.
After the war, Still continued as a prominent businessman, a coal merchant and philanthropist, using his detailed records of freed slaves to write an meticulous account of the underground system and the experiences of many refugee slaves, “The Underground Railroad Records” in 1872.
Still frequently objected to Tubman’s dangerous multiple returns to Maryland to free her family along with other enslaved people on the plantation she grew up on as “Minty,” yet he supported her efforts as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
“Some of the history books are filled with her personality — like she liked strawberries and fine china,” Erivo said. “Why is this delicate thing, for someone who has such power and strength? We don’t know much about her love, but we find out this is the person she went back for, 100 miles back, only to find out he was with somebody new. What does this woman at that moment do? It is about trying to fill in between the wins and the losses with the colors of this human being. I look for the small tidbits. That’s how you find her voice, work on the rhythm of her walk. I like that kind of detail.”
Erivo noticed that in all the photos she has seen of Tubman, her lips have been downturned. She wondered why. Was it because of the things she had seen and done? Did she reserve her smiles for her family?
Erivo’s attention to those subtle details allow her to fully and authentically embody Harriet Tubman to the extent that her realistic portrayal draws the audience into a personal relationship with someone who, for most, only lived through books and photographs.
Erivo found out she had the role about three years before filming and spent a year preparing, which involved many physical scenes all undertaken by the actress.
“The tidbits of the person that you wouldn’t know, that’s what I look for,” the British actress and singer-songwriter said. “How did she walk? Is it clumsy? Does she trip when she falls? I took about a year to prep my body, to prep my mind for it.
“She runs, but she wasn’t a track star,” Erivo said. “I had to get really intense about 10 weeks out. Horse riding was something I did a very long time ago, so I had to get those lessons going. I also had to get my body ready for wearing a corset for long periods. After 18 hours, that is something. I had never scaled the side of a cliff before, so I wanted to be strong enough for that. To lift my own weight like that.”
Odom is no stranger to historical roles, having played Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” on Broadway.
“One of my favorite things about acting is the time travel aspect of it,” he said. “The sci-fi nerd in me likes to step on the set and feel like you are going back, or forward in time. I also think there is something in conservatory training that allows you to move back in that way. To be able to use your instrument well enough to be malleable for different time periods.
“For me it is about a lot of their accomplishments that loom so large, understandably these people get boiled down to their ‘W’s’ — their wins or, sometimes, their losses,” Odom said. “The only challenge is to find the human beings behind the wins and losses. To find the wants, needs, the anger, the heart beating in their chest, the lust, the passion and the desire. You are trying to prepare that way,” Odom added.
Both actors not only share significant stage and movie credits, they are also both accomplished singers. Erivo won the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in 2016 for her role as Celie in the musical “The Color Purple” and recently performed with the National Symphony Orchestra. She had a significant role in last year’s film “Widows,” starring Viola Davis.
Odom will sing with the National Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Show at the Kennedy Center in December. As a TV actor, he has appeared in “Smash” and “Vanished.” He also won a Tony Award for his turn as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” before returning to music more fully and topping the jazz charts.
The film’s cast has other familiar faces, such as Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis Hall, who also played in her 1997 directorial debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” which was recently entered into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Vanessa Bell Calloway plays Harriet’s mother, from whom the abolitionist took her first name. Janelle Monae also has a role as the owner of the safe house in Philadelphia where Tubman settles between her trips on the railroad.
Lemmons and Hall’s son, Henry Hunter Hall, takes on the role of Harriet’s accomplice, Walter, who was a real character in history, but was in actuality a Union Army spy along with Tubman.
“Harriet” is Lemmons’ fifth feature film. Her other works include “Talk to Me,” the Petey Greene biopic starring Don Cheadle and Taraji P. Henson; the 2013 film adaptation of “Black Nativity” and “The Caveman’s Valentine.” She is scheduled to adapt Zadie Smith’s novel “On Beauty” for the big screen in the near future.
“Harriet” opens nationwide on Nov. 1.