How Harriet Humanized An Historical Legend

Harriet Cynthia Erivo stands tall during a nighttime mission

History is all about the accomplishments of memorable figures, be they infamous or heroic. How they laid the groundwork for changes that would succeed them, and took inspiration from those who preceded them, are all part of the grand tapestry that these stories are built off of. And yet, it’s easy to lose sight of the person behind the legend; something that co-writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet seeks to undo, as it tells the true story of Harriet Tubman’s legendary escape from slavery and her rise to heroism.

Humanizing the woman that the history books have taught us was an iconic leader of the Underground Railroad who freed a multitude of slaves, the film focuses more on Harriet’s live in indentured servitude and her eventual transition into a legendary abolitionist. In discussing this movie with director Kasi Lemmons, as well as stars Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr., the effort to bring the person behind that history to light in Harriet emerges as one of the film’s greatest strengths.

I spoke with all three participants on behalf of CinemaBlend during the recent press junket for Harriet, as the film is preparing to be released into theaters following its recent showings on the film festival circuit. Each person had their own unique insight into just what makes this film so unique, and when talking to Leslie Odom Jr., who portrays famed abolitionist William Still, he provided the following thoughts when discussing the movie:

When you’re learning about these historical figures, they can become statues or anecdotes. You learn the accomplishments, you see the photo of them at the finish line, you see the award or the win. You focus on the W, but with these people, when you step into their shoes to play them, you really do have to read the chapters before the W. You have to read about the losses, you have to read about the impetus.

It’s true that a lot of historical films in a similar vein as Harriet tend to focus on that moment in history that really made the times and figures they focus on special. In the terms of this particular story, the narrative would traditionally have focused on the Underground Railroad portion of Harriet Tubman’s life, and more than likely started and ended with that particular note being struck.

But instead, writers Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons focus on the more personal story of Harriet Tubman, which sees her go from a slave hoping to be freed by legal means to a woman who takes control of her own destiny. As such, we see Tubman’s life before, during and after the time she served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

With such an approach, there’s bound to be facts that even those researching Harriet’s historical plot had to have been taken aback by. One such person was Kasi Lemmons herself, who directed and co-wrote the film that has been in development since co-writer Gregory Allen Howard first developed the idea as Freedom Fire for Disney back in the ‘90s.

When I asked Kasi Lemmons what surprised her the most about Harriet Tubman’s personal history, this is how she responded:

There’s so many things that come to mind, but I think the fact that she had hired a lawyer to prove that her mother should be freed, and that her sisters were sold illegally. I mean, I thought that was incredible.

Between the research done by both Kasi Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, the script for Harriet became an extremely personal affair. And a key portion of that narrative is the fact that Harriet, originally named Araminta, was supposed to be freed, along with the rest of her family, once her mother had turned 45.

However, with her owners denying her family their freedom, even in the face of that legal challenge, the woman who would change her name to Harriet Tubman escaped captivity on her own volition, and transformed herself into a freedom fighter who went back to the South for as many slaves as she could free. And the first person she went back for was her husband, John Tubman, which is a story that surprised the woman who would play Harriet’s lead figure, actor Cynthia Erivo.

With her star rising ever since her lead performance in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Color Purple, as well as her standout role in the ensemble of director Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale, the role of Harriet Tubman is a pretty big step forward in her film career.

Thanks to this personal revelation, Cynthia Erivo found a crucial inspiration that helped her create the embodiment of Harriet Tubman we see in the finished film. And it was all due to the following factors, as she said:

It just sort of spun the story on its head, I guess. It made her… it just grounded her. All of a sudden, this human appeared in front of me. This woman who was in love, who would do anything for her husband, and wanted to bring him to freedom with her, because she wanted to be with him. It warmed my heart, made her completely human in my eyes, and then made her extraordinary for making that trip back for another human being.

The human side of Harriet’s incredible true stories of history are what make this film different from the typical historical event film that you’d expect to see in theaters today. Rather than letting the moments dictate our feelings on the person at their center, the movie shows us Harriet’s evolution as a person, and why it moved her to take the actions that she did.

No one knew this better than by Kasi Lemmons and her lead actors, and even the comprehensive remarks above are just brush strokes in a larger picture that’s was painted in the respective conversations they came from. You can see for yourself, as their full remarks from the Harriet press day are provided below in a compilation video:

History drives humanity, but at the same time, humanity makes history. In a cyclical nature of causality, progress rises and falls because of the work that people do behind the scenes. The work that went into crafting Harriet is very much informed by this fact, and the results don’t waver from this method whatsoever. That can be seen when audiences go out to see Harriet, which is in theaters this weekend.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.