Cynthia Erivo thinks she understands why many people objected when she – a British actress and singer of Nigerian descent – was cast as Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist and activist who led countless enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad, in the new biopic Harriet. (It opens Nov. 1.)
“Roles like this don’t come along often,” she said in September in a joint interview with Kasi Lemmons, Harriet’s co-writer and director, before the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Erivo wore a beaded turban and a satin and velvet jacket whose dramatic shoulders only accented her diminutive frame. Lemmons sported blonde braids and a black tunic.
“So when a role does come, and it’s given to someone from somewhere else, it feels like it’s been taken,” Erivo continues. “The fear that there aren’t enough of these stories, that’s come from a long time of not seeing them. But I hope Harriet becomes just the beginning of a way to make more of these roles, tell more of these stories. Because there are so many untold stories of incredible women. There are enough – if we can get them told.”
Unfortunately, objections to Erivo – who is 32, won a Tony for playing Celie in the 2016 Broadway revival of The Color Purple and starred in the films Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale – went beyond the fact that yet another black Brit was playing a specifically African-American hero, as Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo had in 12 Years a Slave and Selma, respectively. Erivo had made derisive-sounding comments on Twitter about black Americans, and many people felt she was dismissive about cultural specificities.
Hampered by the speed-dating style of the TIFF hotel-room interview, today isn’t the day to address that, either. “Now is not the time to pull apart,” Erivo says simply. “We’re stronger together.”
Lemmons, who is best known for her films Eve’s Bayou and Talk to Me, defends her star: “When we talk about portrayal, I get that it’s a big deal,” she says. “But black people, come on now!” She says infighting “is worrisome. And it’s familiar.”
Both women are clearly passionate about Harriet. They refer to it as “an offering.” They talk about their pure intentions, their reverence and seriousness. They call it a Joan of Arc story, rich with spirituality, pain and heartbreak. “We want you to see not just the superhero, but the woman within the superhero,” Lemmons says. “Harriet’s sorrow was woven into the cloak of her superhero costume, yet she was able to keep fighting and getting stronger. How is one person able to give that much? It’s inspirational.”
During the tough three-month shoot in Virginia, which included a river crossing in zero-degree weather, both women felt the presence of Tubman’s spirit. “I was channelling her for sure,” Erivo says. “I was listening to gospel music the entire time, meditating, praying, bringing her in. Just trying to create the space for her in my mind and body.”
Like Tubman, Erivo is tiny but tough – watch her run in Widows. “I didn’t have to quell my strength to play Harriet,” she says. “I didn’t have to take away any of my abilities.”
Growing up in South London, Erivo was a chatty, laughing child. At the age of 5, she sang Silent Night in a Nativity play and knew by the adults’ reaction that she had a gift. By 11, she’d committed to becoming a singer, and began “mining the world for gems who would inform the way I am,” including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Alvin Ailey and Billie Holiday. She paid special attention to artists, such as Nina Simone, who married their work with their politics.
At 15, she added acting to her ambitions and eventually trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her coming projects include the dystopian film Chaos Walking, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Doug Liman, and the miniseries The Outsider, based on Steven King’s novel, due Jan. 12. This spring, she’ll star as Aretha Franklin in the third season of the National Geographic series Genius.
Others have tried to film Tubman’s story. At one point, Viola Davis, Erivo’s Widows co-star, was set to play her. But both Erivo and Lemmons believe those attempts failed so this one could succeed. “It was up to Harriet. She chose this time,” Erivo says. “At this point in the world, she was ready for her story to be told. She was a woman of colour, grasping at freedom with her bare hands, and we’re in a moment where that is being endangered. She’s a reminder of what has been, what had to be done in order to get us to where we are now, and how that shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
She hopes Tubman’s story will “give other women agency,” she continues. “Every day, we’re lambasted with images that take agency from us. Harriet can teach women they have a power and a will within themselves to change the face of the earth.”
Lemmons cites U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families at the Mexican border as evidence that Harriet “is particularly poignant and resonant right now,” she says. “When we talk about the incredible cruelties that enslaved people had to endure, we don’t talk as much about separation of families. We have to be reminded of our own strength and our ability to do things. We don’t have to be oppressed by thinking, ‘It’s so huge, I can’t change it.’ We have to keep in mind that we can each be part of the movement to free ourselves from oppression.”
So the casting controversy, the challenges of the film’s shoot, the critical response – Lemmons and Erivo have a strategy for dealing with that. They ask themselves, “Would Harriet think this was hard?” Both women give a knowing chuckle.
“Harriet taught me to be stronger and more resolute in the things I believe in,” Erivo says. “I don’t think that’s ever going to leave me. She strengthened my spirituality, for sure.”
Lemmons agrees. “Harriet’s courage puts things in perspective,” she says. “She’s been an enriching part of my life. She’s very vivid for me. I talk to her all the time.”
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.