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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 says.

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."


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 rushing creek.

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 Americans."

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 life."

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 world.

"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 strength."

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