Cynthia Erivo on #JusticeForWidows and Why It's Important for Female Stories to Succeed (Exclusive)

Cynthia Erivo
Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Ahead of theatrical debut of ‘Harriet,’ Erivo looks back on her film debut and why we need more messy, unexpected stories about women.

When Harriet debuts in theaters on Friday, it will make history for being the first movie to tell Harriet Tubman’s story. It will also mark actress Cynthia Erivo’s first starring role in a feature film, just a few years after lighting up the Broadway stage as Celie Harris Johnson opposite Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple -- a performance that earned her an Emmy, GRAMMY and Tony Award.

Shortly after, it was announced that Erivo would be portraying the African-American icon. Then, in the fall of 2018, the rising star made her film debut with the back-to-back releases of Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows. The latter was met with a tepid box office -- only making $42 million in North America against a $42 million budget -- despite rave reviews and holding a 91 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was subsequently ignored during awards season and was completely shut out by the Academy Awards.

While the middling success of the film did not slow Erivo’s budding film and TV career -- the Tubman biopic went into production and she has since landed roles in The Outsider on HBO and as Aretha Franklin in Genius -- it was seen as a mark against female-led movies.

"If people don't go and see the movies, we get less of a chance to do more. We have wonderful stories to tell, so we need the chance to tell them," Erivo says, adding that she doesn’t believe box office success should determine whether female stories get told, "but they are [tied together] in the grand scheme of things."

In the months that followed, #JusticeForWidows was used as a rallying cry to defend the film on Twitter. And in September, nearly a year after it debuted in theaters, Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich struck a nerve on the platform when she tweeted, "If we make Hustlers a hit it will ALMOST make up for Widows." That film, a female ensemble about strippers conning Wall Street types led by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, was ultimately a success, grossing over $100 million in the U.S. and Canada. Two weeks later, Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger, made a "pitch perfect" debut despite opening on a limited number of screens.

The success of Hustlers and Judy should not only make up for Widows' reception, it should also bode well for Harriet at the box office. Meanwhile, all three films are earning plenty of Oscar buzz and will surely be major contenders during this year’s awards season.

As for the continued support for the 2018 heist film, Erivo says, "I'm flattered that people are still looking to Widows and wanting the success for that. But I think people need to be ready to see messier stories. Widows was not tidy at all. It was gritty. It was messy in every way. I think people have to be ready to acknowledge that not everything is tidy, not everything looks glamorous, not everything is sexy. Some things are just necessity and that’s the story we were telling."

The same goes for Harriet, which tells an "unexpected" -- if not largely untold -- story about the former slave turned abolitionist and American hero, who finds herself unwilling to rest while her family remain enslaved. She was considered such an unlikely person to be able to free as many people as she did that it was believed a white man dubbed Moses was responsible for it all.

"You see a woman who has agency, and has strength and will and determination -- but it’s not tidy," Erivo says. "And we just have to be used to seeing that. We have to be used to seeing women that look like me in the middle of a story, doing things that we’re not used to seeing them do."

Harriet from Focus Features is in theaters on Friday, Nov. 1.