AN ABOLITIONIST ICON COMES TO THE SCREEN-AT LAST
EVERY American knows her name, but few know the full story of the incredible
life of Harriet Tubman. The iconic abolitionist and freedom fighter who saved
hundreds of lives was not only a conductor on the Underground Railroad-she also
served as a spy for the Union army, led a battalion of soldiers in the Civil War
and in her later years, devoted herself to women's suffrage. Her bravery and
courage were limitless. Spurred on by her unwavering religious faith and her
determination that every person deserved to live free, Harriet Tubman devoted
her life to fighting injustice in all its forms, and she remains today a
singular presence in the annals of history.
Remarkably, despite all she accomplished and the compelling nature of her
personal odyssey, Harriet Tubman has never been the subject of a major feature
film-until now. "This is a bad-ass historical action heroine like we have never
seen before on screen," says producer Debra Martin Chase. "The thing about
Harriet Tubman is that Americans know she was a conductor in the Underground
Railroad, but nobody really knows her whole story. She had a whole other life as
a suffragist. She was an important figure in the women's rights movement and
died in her early nineties in New York. It's this incredible life span for a
woman who by all accounts should have had no hope. She couldn't read, couldn't
write. She was a slave. But she changed not only the course of her own life, but
also that of her family, of many, many people, of her nation."
Although the incredible story-a powerful reminder of the potential for just
one person, no matter how small, to make an enormous difference in the
world-feels especially relevant to today's world, the origins of the project
stretch back to the 1990s when Disney had begun developing a film about Tubman's
life. Originally titled Freedom Fire, HARRIET was writer Gregory Allen Howard's
first feature assignment at the studio.
"It was material I was familiar with," says Howard, who is well known as the
writer behind other inspirational real-life dramas including 2000's sports-drama
Remember the Titans starring Denzel Washington and 2001's Muhammad Ali biopic
Ali, starring Will Smith. "I had studied Harriet Tubman since college. But I
didn't want to write a history lesson even then. I had majored in American
history, and what I wanted to do was make history exciting, take the history out
of it and turn it into a character drama. Even more importantly because of her
story, I wanted to make it an action-adventure movie. This is an inspirational
story about a black woman who did these amazing things."
Howard spent a year on the script, exhaustively researching Tubman's life and
the period, reading letters from the era and studying books such as Bullwhip
Days, an oral history of the lives of former slaves originally published in the
1930s, to get a more detailed sense of the way people spoke at the time. His
goal was to construct a simple but strong narrative that was
accurate and compelling. "This was a story about a slave girl who had a vision
and that vision inspired her to do something that no one else had done," he
Once he turned in the completed screenplay, reaction was overwhelmingly
positive, but there was a sense that the timing just wasn't right. "There was
nothing like it at that time," says Howard. "Those weren't the movies they were
making then. What I was really waiting for more than anything else was for the
climate to change."
Howard then became a producer on the script, struggling to find the right
creative partners. Finally, in Chase, he found the ideal person. Chase strongly
agreed that HARRIET could not only tell the whole story of this singular woman
who refused to be limited by circumstance but also could serve as a thrilling
adventure with real relevance for modern audiences. Chase recruited producer
Daniela Taplin Lundberg (Beasts of No Nation, The Kids Are All Right) to work on
the project. "I could not believe there wasn't a film about Harriet Tubman,"
Lundberg says. "This woman who was so inspiring, who accomplished so much. This
was a woman who had boundless energy and just felt like it was always her duty
to do right."
The filmmakers spent years developing the screenplay, determining the best
way to capture the sum of Harriet's experiences in a way that would feel
exhilarating, emotional and true. "When you approach a biopic, the breadth of
the story you are going to tell is one of the most important decisions that you
make," Chase says. "There was some debate early on about maybe trying to focus
on certain segments of her life because it's so expansive. But at the end of
day, we want this to be the definitive movie on Harriet Tubman. So, it starts
with her as a young woman as a slave on the Brodess plantation, and it ends with
her miraculously being the first woman to command a battalion in war."
Cultural currents also began to move in the film's favor. The smash Broadway
success of Hamilton proved that American history could have massive pop culture
appeal, and films like Hidden Figures demonstrated an appetite for untold
stories celebrating African-American heroines. Buoyed by such developments, the
producers began to search in earnest for a gifted filmmaker who could take the
reins of HARRIET. With films such as Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine,
writer, director and actress Kasi Lemmons had demonstrated her facility with
nuanced, emotional storytelling that was also inherently cinematic.
The producers were won over by her approach to the material, which centered
on the inherent triumph at the core of Tubman's biography. "Debra and I heard a
lot of takes of how to tell Harriet's story, some of which were incredibly harsh
and intense," says Lundberg. "And that is one version of the story. There's
another version of the story that is incredibly hopeful, and every scene is
infused with this idea that it's possible to break free from your past and
change history. That is the story that Kasi Lemmons wanted to tell."
Once she came on board, Lemmons spent five months researching Tubman's life
and working to sharpen the screenplay; her own personal perspective as an
African-American woman informed every draft. "We all saw it as a female
empowerment film, but I really viewed it as an adventure film as well," Lemmons
says. "I was interested in the things that you don't know about Harriet Tubman.
Even though we have in our minds that this must have been an incredibly fierce
human being, the images we see of her are almost sweet, right? This was an
opportunity to me to present this superhero, a real American hero, this woman
that existed outside of the realm of ordinary limitations."
Lemmons was especially intrigued by Tubman's relationship to religion and how
she derived so much power from her faith. "She felt that she was guided and
directed by God," Lemmons says. "It becomes a Joan of Arc story. Here's this
heroine who does not perceive limitations and is not regulated by the things
that constrict normal human beings in this climate of great tension and terror.
She moved through her fear, and she fought and led her own revolution. That
revolution led to the abolishment of slavery. It's a story with a happy ending.
The good guys won."
HARRIET features an ensemble of important historical figures from the 19th
century including William Still and Frederick Douglass, but at the center of the
drama is Harriet Tubman herself. Finding the right actress to play the icon not
as a figure from a history book but rather as a living, breathing woman with
incredible resolve and fortitude was critical-the filmmakers knew that the
entire story would rise and fall on the strength of her performance. For the
producers, award-winning stage actress Cynthia Erivo became the only choice.
British by birth, Erivo had distinguished herself as a rare talent performing
the lead role of Celie in the stage production of The Color Purple, originating
the part in England before bringing the show to Broadway. Two weeks after seeing
Erivo on stage in New York, Chase met with the actress. Although Erivo then had
no experience working in film-she made her feature debut in Drew Goddard's 2018
thriller Bad Times at the El Royale-the producer knew immediately that her
search for Harriet had come to an end. "She walks in with her short, blonde hair
and a cool dress, and I thought, this woman is a star," Chase recalls. "Celie is
the epitome of humility. She is shy and plain. In real life, Cynthia carries
herself with such grace and such confidence and such truth and wisdom. Right
away, I was like, she's Harriet."
Erivo became attached to the film after that meeting and stuck with the
project during its development, even before her own star continued to rise
thanks in part to her 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her
turn in The Color Purple. Once Lemmons joined the project, the filmmaker recalls
meeting with the actress and feeling just as impressed as Chase had been. "Very
quickly, I knew this was the woman who could play Harriet Tubman," the
writer-director says. "Cynthia, she's fierce, and she's tiny, and she's strong
and powerful, and she's filled with this beautiful energy and humanity. You feel
her soaring soul when you talk to her.
She's a force of nature, and we have to imagine that that was Harriet Tubman as
well, a force of nature."
For her part, Erivo was honored to be considered for the role, and she was
excited about the way Lemmons wanted to approach the story. "I loved what she
was bringing to the screen," Erivo says. "I loved what she was writing about. I
loved the story she was telling. The way Kasi wrote it, you see Harriet as a
woman, not just as the superhero. You get to see all sides of her, and you get
to see where she finds her power to do the incredible things that she did."
The actress says she felt an enormous responsibility to do justice to Harriet
Tubman's legacy. "There's definitely been pressure to play this woman, this
icon, because she's an inspiration to so many people," Erivo says. "I don't want
to get it wrong. There's also the excitement of finally being able to bring this
woman's story to the screen. Because really and truly, it should have been done
well before now. I'm just lucky that I get to be a part of it."
THE JOURNEY BEGINS: BUILDING AN ENSEMBLE TO BRING HISTORY TO LIFE
HARRIET'S rare tenacity is on display from the opening moments of the film
when she makes a case to plantation owner Edward Brodess that she should be
free. Then known as "Minty," she has married a free man, John Tubman, and she
wants to ensure that any children they have together will be born free. The law
is on her side. Edward's great-grandfather had left behind a will instructing
that Minty's mother Rit be freed, along with her children, at the age of 45. Now
57, she is still enslaved, as are her sons and daughters.
"They find that bit of hope-they should be free," Erivo says. "When Edward
realizes that they've gotten a lawyer to find this piece of paper, this deed, he
loses his temper and banishes John from the plantation, which means that Minty
cannot be with him anymore. And I think it's there that she realizes that she
cannot live like this, as someone else's property, anymore."
After Edward dies suddenly, the plantation is left to his widow, Eliza, and
his son, Gideon. Jennifer Nettles, the Grammy Award-winning country music
superstar of the band Sugarland, was cast as Eliza; the role marks her feature
film debut. "I got the most amazing letter from Jennifer about how much she
loved the script, and why she wanted to be in the movie," says Chase. "She
thought it would be important for her audience to know that she respected this
story, and it could help with the dialogue that needs to happen between diverse
people in this country right now. I fell in love with her immediately."
Says Nettles: "During the time of Harriet's story, we were on the precipice
of a major shift in our country. Obviously, the Civil War was about to begin.
There was a lot of chaos and unrest. I feel some of that similar unrest
happening in our country today. I also think that the past is prologue, and if
we are not careful and we do not remember our histories, we run the risk of
repeating the mistakes that we have made. In telling this story, I hope that
people will be reminded of this fantastic woman and what she did. I hope that
they will be reminded of our very painful past as a country."
Once she won the role, Nettles found herself faced with a challenging
supporting part playing a woman who finds herself thrust into overwhelming
circumstances. "We see her go from 0 to 100 very quickly," Nettles says. "She
probably did not come from a family where they were on a farm and had slaves,
and in marrying her husband, she inherited this lifestyle. Then suddenly he
dies, and she literally inherits it. How do you reconcile, as a human being,
this concept of another human as property? How does that dynamic play out in the
human landscape of emotions? You also see her desperation with her relationship
with Gideon. She expects a lot of him, and he is not offering too very much. He
is her oldest, and he's her hope, but he's missing the mark for her."
With HARRIET, British actor Joe Alwyn adds another prestigious film to his
accomplished resume. He made his big screen debut in Ang Lee's 2016 drama Billy
Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and has starred in projects including 2017's Boy
Erased, Mary, Queen of Scots, and The Favourite. After his father's death,
Gideon decides to sell Minty, which prompts her to flee, but he is determined to
get her back at any cost, even turning to a notorious slave catcher, Bigger
Long, for assistance.
"The two of them have this strange relationship," Alwyn says. "They've known
each other since birth effectively. There's a lot of buried, confused feelings
for him about the two of them and what their relationship is. He lives in a
world where he is told that these people are property-they are essentially
cattle. He's very tangled and confused somewhere deep inside, and he doesn't
know why because he has these feelings that don't sit with this world. He has
this infatuation with her. He's frustrated by her, but he's drawn to her."
When Minty chooses to leave the plantation, she goes quickly, only speaking
her plans aloud to her husband John-and while he's desperate to make the journey
with her, Minty fears that if they are caught, John will lose his freedom.
Before her departure, she sings a farewell to her mother, a classic spiritual
about leaving for the promised land. Erivo herself is an accomplished vocalist
and songwriter, having written the song, "Fly Before You Fall," for the 2014
feature film Beyond the Lights. But finding the right sound for the spiritual
wasn't simply a matter of just singing the words, the actress says.
"Each character has their own voice, but this one is particularly different
because it doesn't live in the same wheelhouse as me singing as myself on
Broadway," Erivo says. "It's very different. It's far more raw. There are no
frills on it at all. This is more like singing for necessity because it was used
as a way of communicating, to send a message to someone, or to say goodbye to
someone. I don't know how she would have sung, but I do know that she did it a
lot. So, there has to be a proficiency there, but it's not perfected."
Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Shameless, Coming
to America) play Minty's parents, Ben and Rit Ross. When Ben learns of Minty's
plans, he directs her to the home of Reverend Green, who is secretly a conduit
to the Underground Railroad; believing he will never again see Minty, Ben gives
his daughter a wood carving of his own likeness to remember him by. "When
Harriet is running away, he tells her that he's gonna be with her the whole
trip, and he takes a carving of himself to give to her to carry with her,"
Peters says. "It's very touching."
He also insists on covering his eyes so that if he's questioned about Minty's
whereabouts, he can convincingly state that he has not seen her. "I was blown
away with Ben not wanting to look at his daughter to protect himself and her,"
Peters says. "What that shows me is that he was an honest man. He did not want
to go against the word of the Lord."
Like the rest of the cast, Calloway was excited to be a part of telling such
an important story, and she was especially honored to play Rit, a character who
experiences such great tragedy in her life yet somehow survives. "Rit doesn't
say a lot, but she's the emotional piece of the story," Calloway says. "She's
seen firsthand the pain of slavery. She's had her children taken from her. She's
been enslaved longer than she was supposed to be. She's illiterate. She has this
underlying pain that won't go away, and there's nothing she can do about it. Her
heart is broken."
Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Reverend Green, who travels to various
plantations preaching sermons praising humility and the nobility of hard work
and servitude while clandestinely helping slaves escape from captivity. "Samuel
Green was a real guy who was a member of the African Methodist Church and was a
strong advocate for using his platform to help freedom seekers," says
Curtis-Hall, who is married to Lemmons. "Much of his mission was about saving
souls and saving lives."
Heeding the minister's advice, Minty covers miles of ground before sufferings
one of her "spells" and passing out-as an adolescent, Harriet had sustained a
grave head injury that left her with a prominent scar and a lifetime of
headaches and seizures, as well as vivid dreams that she interpreted to be
prophetic messages sent to her by God. By the time she awakes, Gideon and his
men have managed to track her, and Minty is soon trapped on a bridge over a
Rather than allow herself to be recaptured, she chooses to throw herself into
the waters below. "It's in that moment that she makes the true decision to be
free or die," Erivo says. "There is no other option. I don't know if she knew
that until that moment. I think that that is the crux of the movie-the idea that
freedom is more than just not being someone else's property. Freedom is the
opposite of death. If you're not free, then what is the point? I think that is
what she's fighting for."
Alone and in danger, Minty crosses Delaware where she finds a kind Quaker
couple who help her reach the Pennsylvania border. From there, she travels to
Philadelphia and arrives at the offices of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society,
where she meets abolitionist William Still. The kind Underground Railroad leader
invites her to choose a new name for herself to commemorate the beginning of her
life as a free woman. She settles on Harriet Tubman-the first name in honor of
her mother, the surname in honor of her beloved husband.
Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. was cast as the civil rights activist and
conductor on the Underground Railroad. "Regal is the word that I would use for
him just generally in life, the way he carries himself," Lundberg says of the
actor. "And I feel that is exactly what William Still needed. He's incredible,
and he and Cynthia are best friends-Cynthia is the godmother to his child-and so
they have such a natural chemistry. We're so lucky to have him. He won the Tony
for playing Aaron Burr, so he's an incredible coup."
Odom Jr. was drawn to the film's screenplay and the deftness with which it
brought figures from the past to vivid life. "I thought it was so beautiful,"
the actor says. "It knocked me out. As important as these stories are, if
they're told incorrectly, they're dusty. I have some experience with stories
about historical figures, so I also know that when a real writer, a creator,
breathes life into them, they have incredible power. I'm excited to inject these
people into the modern conversation, to talk about these people with young
people, to give them an image to hold onto and a connection to their legacy as
Still introduces Harriet to a woman named Marie Buchanon who was born free
and believes strongly in the abolitionist cause. The role went to musician and
actress Janelle Monae, who previously had starred in another historical drama
about groundbreaking women, 2016's Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. "Janelle
Monae, she's a queen," Chase says. "She stepped on set and you truly believe
that she is an African-American woman during this time who has her own business
and is elegant and is educated and has made an incredible life for herself. You
can see through Harriet's eyes that Marie represents the potential for a new
Monae says that Marie is just as struck by Harriet, believing her to be
divinely ordained to play a role in ending the barbaric institution of slavery.
"When Harriet comes to Marie's door, instantly Marie knows she's special," Monae
says. "Marie loved Harriet, and she felt like this is a person that she needed
to protect. Harriet is obviously coming from a traumatic experience, and Marie
feels like she can help Harriet to work through her trauma. Marie teaches her
how to be a lady in that time-not just for the sake of being a lady, but she's
teaching her how to deal with the white people in that era, the oppressors.
She's teaching her a disguise: how to just be a citizen, how to be meek and mild
because you don't want to cause any trouble."
Once Harriet determines that God wants her to return to rescue her loved
ones, she uses the training Marie has given to her to conduct herself like a
free woman, traveling with forged papers back to Maryland in the hopes of
bringing her husband, John, to freedom. But when she reaches him, she finds only
sorrow. Told that Harriet had died after jumping from the bridge, John, played
by actor Zackary Momoh, has taken another wife with whom he's expecting a child.
"Zackary Momoh brought such compassion to a role that could otherwise be
misconstrued because John Tubman was Harriet's husband, and he went onto marry
another woman," says Chase. "When Harriet came down to find him-she's risked her
life to save him and bring him back to Philadelphia with her- and he's moved on.
It could be a scene where you hate him, and actually, it's a scene where you
feel heartbroken because they really did love each other, and he thought he
would never see her again."
But Harriet doesn't go back to Pennsylvania empty-handed. Instead, she
singlehandedly rescues nine slaves-a feat so astonishing that William Still can
barely believe she's accomplished it.
Soon, Harriet is traveling back and forth to Maryland, risking her life to
bring others to freedom-the slaves referring to her as Moses to protect her
identity. Determined to apprehend the mysterious figure he believes is stealing
his "property," Gideon and slave catcher Bigger Long try in vain to apprehend
Moses, but they are no match for the clever and resourceful Harriet whose
mission appears to be ordained by God.
Before her work is done, Harriet has become a full-fledged conductor on the
Underground Railroad and a prominent advocate for abolition and civil rights
standing shoulder to shoulder alongside outspoken social reformers like
Frederick Douglass, who is played by actor Tory Kittles. Lemmons believes that
seeing these trailblazing figures together feels powerful, and the
writer-director is excited by the positive impact the film could have in the
"To see a story of human courage about a woman who is this brave and this
strong and this single-minded, it's a wonderful time for that," Lemmons says.
"It's a wonderful time to celebrate womanhood. It's a wonderful time to
celebrate American heroes, and courage and activism. She acted, that's what she
did. Nothing stopped her. She didn't see limitation to what she could do, what
she could accomplish, and how she could help her fellow man."
Adds Erivo: "I'm excited for young women and older women and women who are
mothers and women who are daughters and wives to come and share in her
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