Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, is having a pop-culture moment — 106 years after her death.
“Harriet,” the film based on the freedom fighter’s courageous life, has awards buzz and, according to Box Office Mojo, has made more than $40 million worldwide. The Critics Choice Assn. announced Sunday that “Harriet” was nominated for Critics’ Choice Awards in the actress and song categories.
In addition to the big-screen story, there’s an ongoing push to get Tubman, who risked her life to lead slaves to freedom, on the $20 bill, which would make her the first African American depicted on U.S. currency.
As the film continues its box-office build, it hasn’t been without controversy, starting with comments on Twitter that the lead role in the film was given to British actress Cynthia Erivo, star of “The Color Purple” revival on Broadway, and not to an African American actress. (For the record, an African American female director, two African American producers and 13 African American department heads were among the crew to work on “Harriet.”)
Also last month, in an interview on Focus Features’ website, “Harriet” screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard, who began working to bring Tubman’s story to film 26 years ago, referenced that another studio he had been in discussions with in 1994 had suggested Julia Roberts play Tubman.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” Howard said. “When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.’”
Beyond any controversy, here are four things to know about Tubman’s story and the 2019 film about her life.
1. Getting Tubman on the $20 bill
In April 2016, during President Obama’s administration, former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the tireless activist would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Tubman would be the first African American to be represented on any of the nation’s currency.
“The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old,” Lew said then. “I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy.”
The unveiling had been timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. However, it was announced in May by current Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin that a $20 bill featuring Tubman would be pushed back to 2028.
Last month, Focus Features, which distributed the film, had a screening of “Harriet” in Washington for members of Congress. It was a bipartisan affair with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) as co-hosts of the event, along with the Congressional Black Caucus.
At the event, lawmakers had a panel discussion with Karen Hill, president and chief executive officer of the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, N.Y., and Tubman scholar Kate Clifford Larson, author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero,” about the House bill to get Tubman on the $20 bill and her legacy.
“I was glad to organize a panel discussion last night on the ‘Harriet’ movie,” Hoyer tweeted. “I thank each of the panelists for joining our conversation on the lasting influence that Harriet Tubman has had in this country and in her home state of Maryland.”
In another tweet, he said: “Harriet Tubman ought to be recognized by all Americans for her leadership, advocacy, and determination. That is why I will continue to call on the Administration to put #TubmanOntheTwenty and honor her legacy with the distinction it deserves.”
2. Drawing a line on violence
“Harriet” producer Debra Martin Chase says she has been thrilled by the success of the biographical film since its Nov. 1 release.
“This has been a 5½-year journey for me,” Chase told The Times at the Hollywood Film Awards last month. “The response has been heartwarming. I have been tearing up with joy. ... When I saw we had an A+ Cinemascore, I went crazy.”
Chase first set out to make a movie that wasn’t about slavery. “It’s about freedom and empowerment,” she said. “Some of the early critics said, ‘Well, it wasn’t brutal enough.’ But that’s not the film we wanted to make. We wanted to make a movie that did pay homage to [Tubman], that talked about the emotional scars, the emotional brutality that slavery was.”
Although the film takes place more than 150 years ago, Chase said she saw how closely connected the storyline was to the plight of migrants in the U.S.
“When your children are being torn away from you and you never see them again, that never heals,” Chase said. “Unfortunately, we are still going through that in this country right now. Ironically, this story about the 1800s is in many ways just as relevant now as it was then. And that is sad.”
Although Tubman’s contributions to society are often taught in school, Chase said she felt that the fascinating details of Tubman’s story should be illustrated on screen.
“It was really important for us to tell the story of a woman,” Chase said. “All we know is the grim picture of her much older in her life. She was married twice; her second husband was 22 years her junior. After the Civil War, she went on to be a fierce advocate for women’s suffrage and the rights for the elderly.”
Tubman’s husband was with her until she died at about 91 years old.
“She led this truly amazing life,” Chase said. “For me, one of the lessons of this movie is that we can’t control the circumstances into which we are born. She couldn’t read or write. She was born a slave and was destined to be a slave. And yet she decided, ‘No, we all have the power to determine who we become and what we want to do with our lives.’”
3. Using costumes to tell the tale
Chase said she and her team knew period costumes were going to play an important role in the film, which also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn and Janelle Monáe. “We knew the clothing would be huge in this because we wanted to have a style, to be true to the period and be true to the characters,” Chase said. “So, I asked my friend [Oscar-winning costume designer] Ruth Carter who did I want. She was working on ‘Dolemite’ at the time and she said, ‘You have to get Paul Tazewell [‘Hamilton’s costume designer]. There’s nobody else.’”
Chase asked Carter to set up an appointment with Tazewell. “We reached out to him, and thankfully, he came on board,” Chase said. “I mean the research that went into the clothes; he scoured all over North America for the outfits and obviously he made several things himself. As [director-writer] Kasi Lemmons talks about her approach to the movie, there was Minty, Harriet and Moses. You can see the progression of her character in her clothes.”
In “Harriet,” Chase said to look for the visually compelling moment with Erivo on a white horse. “The outfit she has at the end is this gorgeous burgundy velvet color,” Chase said. “It’s very elegant, very powerful. It’s funny: When we were getting ready to shoot the scene, she had on another outfit. Kasi said, ‘No, no, we can’t do this. It has to be she’s going to be on a white horse riding away. Embodying the power of her people and womanhood. She’s got to look regal.’ So that was the idea behind that jacket.”
4. Playing Tubman
Last month, Chase attended the Hollywood Film Awards to support Erivo, who received the Hollywood Breakout Actress Award. (Erivo’s next project will be playing Aretha Franklin in an upcoming National Geographic series. She will also receive the Rising Star Award at the 2020 American Black Film Festival Honors in February.)
“I hope that I played this role fully and truthfully,” said Erivo. “It took a lot physically, mentally and spiritually, but all was necessary because she deserves her story to be told.”
Erivo, wearing a Versace gown, said she felt the costumes she wore as Tubman helped her seamlessly disappear into the character.
“When you put a piece of clothing on that isn’t yours,” said the Tony-winning actress, who’s of Nigerian heritage, “it feels like it belongs to the character. It makes you walk differently, makes you carry yourself differently. Because she is so physical, part of that is the costume. The way in which you wear a costume is part physicality. For me, it just added to the story, added to the way I could tell a story. And I am just really grateful.”