Cynthia Erivo faces an almost impossible task in Harriet. She has to embody an American icon, a figure that looms so large in our history as to appear superhuman, while also making her relatable — someone the audience can empathise with and root for. In other words, she must reconcile Harriet Tubman, the myth, with Harriet Tubman, the person.
No scene captures that dichotomy better than the one in which Harriet, having risked her life to escape slavery, finally makes it to freedom. Dawn is breaking when she arrives at the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, the sky awash in an ethereal glow of pastels. But as she walks towards the rolling valleys ahead, she smiles in an intensely personal way. This isn’t the Harriet Tubman we’ve come to know through history class — that’s the name she will adopt as a free woman living in Philadelphia. She’s still Araminta Ross, and she’s just achieved the impossible. In that moment, she is both a woman and a goddess.
Kasi Lemmons’ take on the abolitionist hero has been a long time coming. In fact, it’s the first feature film devoted to Tubman’s life story, a shocking fact given the breadth of her achievements. Perhaps that’s why Erivo’s casting was met with such backlash — if there’s to be only one Harriet Tubman biopic, should she be played by a British actress?
The Tony, Grammy, and Emmy-award winner (she’s an Oscar away from an EGOT) understands the concern, but also hopes that she won’t be the definitive Harriet Tubman. “This is just the first and hopefully not the last,” she told Refinery29. “I want this to just push people to do more.”
Ahead, Erivo shares her favourite lesser-known story about Tubman that didn’t make it into this movie. Hollywood, take note!
Refinery29: We’re used to thinking about Harriet Tubman as a superhuman icon, but this movie really focuses on her as a person, before she became a legend. What about her did you find most surprising?
Cynthia Erivo: What surprised me was the love she had for her husband. I knew that she was married. I knew it was to John Tubman, but I didn't know that it was like a big sweeping love. I didn't know that it was a defining moment in her life. We're never really told that she went back for him initially. She was desperately in love with this man whom she was married to, whose children she wanted to have, [and she] had to leave him. When she was able to take herself to freedom, she decided to make the trip all the way back for him. And it was only when she realised that it had gone wrong that she had to make a decision to use the chance that she had. But knowing that her story started from love is beautiful. It makes her a whole person, a woman, which I think also was taken from her, her womanhood. We know her as the hero, but we forget that she was a human being and a woman.
There’s a lot of emphasis on Harriet’s clothing in this film, and how her style evolves in tandem with her own personal growth. Do you think having a woman behind the camera informed that aspect of her character?
I do think so, actually. You know, that part of her life was an experience that was continually changing. She was learning new things and meeting new people, and being in society and all of those things. It's a wonderful thing for Kasi [Lemmons] to have observed and to allow us the chance to explore that. Paul Tazewell is the wonderful costume designer who designed all of these things to make sure that we saw the journey through her clothing as well. Learning about what it is to look like a free lady, be like a free lady — she hasn't experienced it yet.
You had to do some physically trying stunts while wearing several layers of skirts, and a corset.
It's not easy with layers of clothing, but I loved how it felt. The weight of these clothes! The last piece was a velvet jacket, skirt, top, and then I had that huge belt across the middle. Underneath it there's a corset, all of which I was wearing when I was climbing up that cliff. There's something that I love about the touch and the feel of it. This person did it with a corset and skirt, and petticoats, and all of that, which I think is kind of epic. I kind of relished the difficulty. There's something kind of cool about being able to scale the side of a cliff with a skirt on, and then be able to rip it out of the way and move.
There’s always a sense of responsibility when you’re playing a real person, but you also experienced some backlash to your casting. Did that put more pressure on you to get it right?
I've always felt a responsibility to tell the story as fully as they possibly can, mainly because I knew that this was the first time we were going to be telling her story. That, to me, was the most important thing. We are getting a chance to finally tell this story, which should have been told a long time ago, [but] has been attempted and failed. This one itself took a really long time to make. I think it was on the shelf for almost 10 years. When it got to me, it took another three years to make, so I was just excited at the prospect of being able to finally tell this person's story. That's the responsibility I was thinking of. Everyone is entitled to how they feel, and I can understand why they might feel like that, but I just really want to make sure that the story is told. Then we can make more. This is just the first and hopefully not the last.”
Right — there are tons of different Batman movies, so why not?
I mean come on, I know I've seen about three different ones! We've done that, but we haven't done it for her. It's time to tell that story. This is the beginning of something, and I want this to just push people to do more. There's so much life of hers. This woman lived till she was 91. Let's go into this story about her being a spy. Let’s go into the story about her being a general. Look at what it was like for her to open her home to people who didn't have anything. These stories exist. What about the time when Queen Victoria sent her a scarf — like, what would've spurred the queen to do that?
Did that really happen?
Yes it did, and the scarf is at the African American museum. This is what I'm saying! There's so much to do with this woman — we've only just begun.
In the movie, Harriet has a really complicated relationship with Joe Alwyn’s character, Gideon, who was her childhood playmate and became her master. How did you feel about their interactions?
Complicated, warped. There's ownership, which makes things dark, and I think their understanding of what they meant to each other is different. For a while, Harriet may have had to normalise it because of where she was, but knew it wasn't right. It's just not a good place to be. But I think that loads of relationships during that time between an enslaved person and slaver [were] complicated and got really nasty. But the person who was enslaved never had the agency to say, I don't want to be in this relationship. There was no choice. And I think that's where it differs: For her there was no choice; for him there was.
What was your relationship with Alwyn like on set? You have some pretty difficult scenes together.
Lovely, because he cares. He was very worried about me a lot of the time, always checking to see if I was okay. There were really difficult moments by the tree where he slaps me. I've done fight courses. I know how to be slapped, and I know how not to get hurt, so I was fine. It was about reassuring each other that we were both in safe spaces so that we could really push ourselves to do [what] that we needed to do in order to tell the story. I'm glad it was him.
A pivotal moment in the film is when Harriet makes the jump — literally — to freedom. Everything seems to come together in that scene, especially the lighting.
That was not the lighting, that was real. The sun actually did that. It was the craziest thing. We had a double rainbow on the right hand side, and the day before it was raining and dark, just the worst. And as I jump, the sun comes out, that bright rainbow sky goes like a purpley-pink. It was mad!
What was going through your mind?
“We're not doing this by ourselves.”
Harriet is in UK cinemas on 22nd November