'Harriet' director, cast talk about finally giving Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman the Hollywood treatment

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. (Photo: Focus Features)

Harriet Tubman almost had her own currency before her own movie.

The celebrated abolitionist, who guided dozens of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, was set to become the new face of the $20 bill as of 2016, though that honor has been delayed under the administration of President Donald Trump.

With Harriet, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival Tuesday night and opens in theaters in November, Tubman's story is finally being told in what feels like a long-overdue Hollywood biopic. So what took so long?

"I think people have tried in the past but maybe it wasn't the right time," director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Talk to Me) told Yahoo Entertainment during a sit-down interview at a Toronto hotel this week, where she was joined by cast members Cynthia ErivoLeslie Odom Jr.Joe Alwyn and Jennifer Nettles. "We happen to feel that right now is a unique time and the perfect time for her story to be told. People have tried — very talented people have tried to get her story made before — and for whatever reason this is the project that came together."

Indeed, to Lemmons's point, Tubman-related projects have been attempted in the recent past, including an HBO biopic announced in 2015 starring Oscar winner Viola Davis that never materialized. And as the director has noted, Hollywood's past has certainly never made it easy to develop a project in which the lead character is an African American woman.

"Maybe she wasn't ready for it to be told," added Erivo, the 32-year-old British Tony winner (The Color Purple) who made the leap from stage to screen in 2018 with two breakout performances (Widows, Bad Times at the El Royale) and now plays the eponymous conductor, in more ethereal terms. "And maybe now she is."

Odom Jr., another Broadway success story (Hamilton) who plays the less heralded abolitionist William Still, argued why 2019 is the perfect time for a Tubman film. "It's not new, but it's flared up recently with celebrities [who] aren't very well read, this thing about 'Why didn't they just escape? Sounds like a choice,'" he said, clearly referencing controversial comments made by rapper and producer Kanye West in 2018. "You want to say to somebody like that, 'Let me open a book for you and show you about William Still's mother, who tried to escape with her four children, twice, and then had to make the difficult choice of leaving her two sons behind on her third try."

Based on a script by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard (Ali), Harriet opens by depicting the impetus of what drove the enslaved woman, then called Minty, to escape to her own freedom in the first place. Her free husband John (Zackary Momoh) has obtained documents indicating Minty and her family members should have been released years ago. Not only are those documents destroyed, the Dorchester County, Maryland clan who owns her (lead by Alwyn as Gideon Brodess and Nettles as his mother Eliza) doubles down on the injustice by deciding to sell her, which would separate her from her own children.

The desperate Minty, then, takes off on foot — following the North Star — for a treacherous 100-mile trek to liberty in Philadelphia, where she links up with Still at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Initially driven by the pure need to rescue her own family members, Harriet Tubman, as she now calls herself (while slave hunters refer to her in almost mythical stature as "Moses") makes several journeys back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line, eventually guiding some 70 people to their freedom.

Everyone involved in the project felt the weight of responsibility in doing Tubman's tale justice.

"We take it incredibly seriously," said Lemmons. "I was very intimidated when I was invited onto the project. And I had to look at my fear and say, 'OK, if you're not ready to do it now, when are you gonna be ready to take on something intimidating? And I decided that if Harriet was my North Star, and I just stuck to Harriet and this is why I want to tell the story… then I would be OK."

"It was hugely daunting," said Erivo, who was cast prior to Lemmons coming on board, and has had to deal with a spate of backlash for taking on the role of such a treasured American historical icon as a British woman of Nigerian heritage. "Because I wanted to do it right. And I wanted to do it well. So it was about trying to find the ways in which I needed to prepare myself both mentally and physically to be ready to do it. And not just to play the role, but to be the lead on set. Because it's more than just playing the character, it's about being the right kind of person around everybody else."

Harriet director Kasi Lemmons with actors Cynthia Erivom and Leslie Odom Jr. on September 8, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

For Alwyn (who costarred in a trifecta of 2018 prestige films — The Favourite, Boy Erased and Mary Queen of Scots — and also otherwise known as boyfriend to pop star Taylor Swift) and Nettles (the Sugarland country star making her feature film debut), the challenge lied in humanizing slave owners.

"You [can't relate to] what they do or what they stand for, but you have to try to find some kind of humanity to try to latch onto so it isn't just a 2D character," Alwyn said. "You have to try to understand where they're coming from and their point of view, and whatever tangled emotions they have going on inside to justify what they're doing and why they're doing it."

"It makes it compelling as an actor, to get to play such a role, because there isn't a lot to empathize with," said Nettles. "I had to familiarize myself with the time period. Because if you approach it as a person from this time looking at it, it's detestable and it's horrible and it's unrelatable. I can't relate to it. But what I can relate to is understanding from a place of pain, a woman who is desperate. A woman who has no agency. She couldn't read. She was left with this whole farm to try to deal with. And you try to tap into the desperation. What do you do when you're backed into a corner?"

Despite how long it took to bring Tubman's story to movie screens, Lemmons sees her film's presence as a sign of industry shifting in the right direction when it comes to representation.

"A lot has changed in 20 or 30 years," she said. "I'm overly optimistic, that's why I'm still a filmmaker, but I do believe that this is real change that we're seeing. We can present in a costume drama a black woman that is the protagonist and the hero of the film, and I don't think that that was always possible."

Harriet opens Nov. 1.

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