How Cynthia Erivo's Harriet Tubman Biopic Is Making History (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
When Harriet debuts in theaters on Friday, it will make history for being the first feature film dedicated to telling Harriet Tubman’s life. It comes just over two years after the groundbreaking WGN America drama, Underground, introduced the American hero as a new character during its second season, and over 40 years after Cicely Tyson played the abolitionist in the 1978 miniseries A Woman Called Moses.
In that time, there’s been little of Tubman’s vast story -- from her escape from slavery to the Underground Railroad to her role as a military leader during the Civil War and from her work as a suffragette to her death in 1913 -- presented onscreen, while there have been several versions of other American heroes -- mostly, white and male -- told again and again. A common example is Abraham Lincoln, whose story has been told countless times onscreen, including Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for Best Actor in 2013. Even Frederick Douglass, who is portrayed by John Legend on the WGN America series, has seen his story told more times than Tubman.
“We’ve grown accustomed to talking about the rock stars in history again and again,” Aisha Hinds, who portrays Tubman on Underground, tells ET, lamenting the fact that she has largely been ignored. It’s time “we revisit some of our other historical icons,” she adds.
However, that may have finally changed for Tubman, whom there’s been renewed interest in after the U.S. Treasury announced in April 2016 she was going to be the new face of the $20 bill. (That change has since been delayed.) Not only did Underground recently present a version of her story, but now there’s a film written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons starring Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo while Viola Davis is reportedly still developing a project at HBO.
But Erivo, whose version took over a decade to get made, is the first to admit it’s largely been a struggle to bring Tubman to life onscreen. “I feel like the attempt has been made many times,” she says. “It’s almost like the world wasn’t quite ready for it. I don’t know why. It should have been.”
After failing to get a biopic financed for theatrical release, Davis turned to HBO to get her adaptation of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman - Portrait of an American Hero produced. While Davis says that it’s because Tubman is a black woman -- a protagonist that she’s been told won’t sell at the box office -- Howard thinks it’s largely due to the fact that her life is rooted in a slave narrative. “Slave stories are inherently uncommercial, at least on the surface,” explains Howard, who also wrote Remember the Titans and Ali. “Every two years, I pull it off the shelf and go, ‘What about this?’”
What finally opened the door for Harriet in particular, Allen says, was the success of 12 Years a Slave, the 2013 adaptation of the memoir by Solomon Northup. Not only did it win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film was also considered a box office success, making over $187 million worldwide on a $17 million budget. “12 Years a Slave said we could revisit this very painful period but the movie will still do business,” he says.
Ultimately, it still took four years to get Harriet financed -- Fences producer Charles King partnered with the producers of Beasts of No Nation and Debra Martin Chase (Sparkle) on the film -- and it spent several years in development before filming began in October of last year. In that time, Lemmons signed on to direct and Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles, Joe Alwyn and Leslie Odom Jr. were added to the cast.
“Nobody thought a slave narrative could make any money, let alone be a hit TV show,” Howard says. Nor did anyone expect Hidden Figures, a true story about three black women working for NASA, to beat out Rogue One at the box office on its opening weekend and eventually become the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee at the 2017 Oscars. “So we're opening people's eyes.”
Howard also credits Underground for generating interest in Harriet, saying the key to the TV show’s success has been to make the story entertaining. In fact, both Underground and Harriet will showcase Tubman as something of an action hero, which Howard says is radical largely because it’s not a typical history lesson. It’ll certainly change audiences’ perceptions of Tubman, whom Bound for the Promised Land author Kate Clifford Larson says is often viewed as a “juvenile, one-dimensional character that was better suited for cartoons than as a serious treatment of a blood-and-flesh woman.”
Lemmons largely blames this on what she refers to as “fuzzification of African American heroes and making them cuddly, when people were actually very activated -- and there was resistance. This is a story of resistance. There’s militancy that I think is inherent in a lot of our heroes that has to be spoken to.”
For Underground co-creators and executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, they wanted to tell a story of a woman who “was strong, driven and unflappable.” In the opening scene of Tubman’s debut on the series, she is seen wielding a gun as she confronts a white slave owner. The moment prompted someone on set to say to Hinds, “I don’t think she carries a gun,” which the actress adamantly shut down. “By her own admission, she carried a gun,” Hinds says, adding that people share that perception of Tubman as a passive leader. “That’s a generality that people have about women in general, which is another reason why revisiting her [is so important] … She was definitely a woman who wielded a gun and an ax and was willing to use them both. She exited the womb with a spirit of resistance.”
Harriet also shares that spirit of resistance by showing a woman who “very much was in control of her own destiny,” Lemmons says, adding that the film is about movement. “She gets to freedom and she’s not happy because she’s alone and she wants her family to experience this. And just the movement of it, and how courageous she was and how much peril she was always in.”
While ultimately not worried about how she’ll be received, Hinds felt the weight of portraying Tubman when she started preparing for the role. There are plenty of books on her life, but there is no video footage and no past onscreen portrayals, aside from Tyson, to rely on to help find Tubman’s voice or movement. “That actually crippled me for a moment because I felt inadequate to encompass the legacy of this hero, this woman,” says Hinds, who had to dig deep into texts to glean untold layers of her humanity. “Once I began to learn about these nuances, it gave me permission to loosen up and allow her to consume me and to use my body as her vessel.”
Meanwhile, Erivo says she’s been “trying to soak it all in.” For the Broadway star, Harriet marks her first leading role following her film debut in the back-to-back releases of Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows in 2018. Alongside Hinds, she’s one of two women to embody the historic figure and bring her back to the forefront of the conversation. “I’m completely grateful to be able to play that role,” Erivo says, adding: “It’s almost like reclaiming of a history and putting her back in the books and seeing her again,”
While it may be daunting to embody a person such as Tubman, whose legacy has largely been ignored by Hollywood until now, it’s hard to ignore how much her story resonates today. “We’re living in a time right now where we could use a kind of faith, a kind of power, the kind of resistance, the kind of revolution that was embedded inside Harriet,” Hinds says. And Green and Pokaski add: “This was a woman who actually reconciled what she knew about America with what she believed it could be. Now seems like a good time to remind us that one person with focus and commitment can make that kind of change.”
“For young black women, we need strong black women examples to look to,” Erivo says. “There are young girls who are coming up who don't know of this woman, and they don't have an example to look to, to follow in their lives.” Portraying Tubman will go a long way to change that. “You see a woman who has agency, and has strength and will and determination -- but it’s not tidy,” she continues. “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.”