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November 12, 2019 by  
Filed under Feature

In “Harriet,” the life of an American icon arrives on the big screen.

Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, “Harriet,” which opens in theaters across America on Nov. 1, tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

The movie is set in Dorchester County, Maryland, 1849. Tubman was then known as Araminta “Minty” Ross (Cynthia Erivo) — a slave at the Brodess plantation who prays that someday she can escape bondage and make a better life for her family.

Every American knows her name, but few know the full story of the incredible life of Harriet Tubman. The 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 in the Civil War, and later 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. Producer Debra Martin says,

“This is a bad-ass historical action heroine like we have never seen before on screen. 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, and her nation.”

Writer Gregory Allen Howard spent a year writing the “Harriet” script — and came to the project with a pedigree that includes penning such inspirational, fact-based dramas as “Remember the Titans” and “Ali.”

Actress Cynthia Erivo portrays Harriet Tubman.
Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

“I had studied Harriet Tubman since college,” said Howard. “But, I didn’t want to write a history lesson even then. I 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.”

“Harriet” features an ensemble of important historical figures from the 19th century, including William Still and Frederick Douglass — but the center of the drama is Harriet Tubman. 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, the award-winning stage actress Erivo became the only choice. Gifted filmmaker, writer, director and actress, Kasi Lemmons, who is known for her films “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine,” is the mastermind of the Harriet film.

British by birth, Erivo had distinguished herself as a rare talent performing the lead role as Celie in the stage production of “The Color Purple” — originating the part in England before bringing the show to Broadway. Erivo was honored to be considered for the role as Harriet and how Lemmons wanted to approach the story. “I loved what she was bringing to the screen,” she said. “I loved what she was writing about and 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 incredible things that she did.”

The “Harriet” actress’ says she felt an enormous responsibility to do justice to Tubman’s legacy. “There’s definitely been pressure to play this woman, this icon, because she’s an inspiration to so many people. 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.”

Given America’s current political climate, “Harriet” contains some parallels — the period of chaos and unrest before the start of the Civil War — that reminds us to be careful and avoid the mistakes of our painful past.

Although “Harriet” was years in the making as a film, its release couldn’t come at a more appropriate moment — with Tubman herself finally beginning to receive the recognition she so richly deserves. She’s now come at the forefront of the cultural conversation as a shining example of courage and resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming adversity.

To celebrate her incalculable contributions to American life, Tubman had been selected by the U.S. Treasury to become the first person of color to be represented on any of the nation’s currency. In April 2016, former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, following a 10-month process in which the department sought input from the public.

While the unveiling of the Tubman $20 bill had been timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, it was announced in June 2019 by current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that it has been pushed back; the Tubman $20 is now set to debut in 2028.

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