Becoming Harriet Tubman: A hero with heart

Actress Cynthia Erivo talks about taking on the mighty role in a new movie

STORY TO TELL: Cynthia Erivo takes the lead role in the film Harriet

MORE THAN 100 years after her death, the story of Harriet Tubman’s life has reached the big screen.

A figure lauded in African American history for her remarkable feat of freeing herself and hundreds of others from slavery in the US, Harriet, the film about the abolitionist, is bringing the tale of a real-life superhero to audiences around the world.

Taking on the challenge of breathing life into this monumental character is British-Nigerian actress, singer and songwriter Cynthia Erivo.

While the direct impact of Tubman’s actions were felt in the US, her story is one that transcends borders.

For Erivo, who spent time researching Tubman to gain a deeper understanding of the woman she was tasked with embodying, their physical likeness was one of her initial entry points into becoming Tubman.

“I had learned that she and I shared the same sort of physique. We’re both physically petite but strong and she sang like I do… and I think those things sort of gave me a way in to how she would move, how she would be,” Erivo told The Voice.

Tubman’s capacity to love but also the heartache she endured was also an opening for Erivo to connect with her phenomenal character.

“Knowing that she had lost love, had love, was probably my favourite way into her because I don’t think we know about how much of a human being she is.

“We know the broad strokes, we know the work that she’s done, we know that she’s freed people, we know that she freed herself – but I don’t think we know that she was a wife and she was very much in love and she came back for him and he left her.

“And I just think that particular detail in her life just made me sort of open up my eyes. “She wasn’t just a hero any more, she was a woman who was grounded and had experiences that I understood and knew.”

While Tubman is widely known for her freedom-fighting escapades, less light has been shone on her personal life.

In Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, audiences are introduced to Tubman while she is still enslaved but also wholly committed to her husband John Tubman, a free man. The film follows Tubman’s journey to freedom, her return to rescue her family, friends and countless others and her rise through free society as a respected and skilled member of the Underground Railroad.

The 32-year-old actress, who describes herself as fiery, strong and determined, also related to Tubman’s vulnerability.

Lemmons and Erivo present Tubman as a complex, multifaceted being, not simply an epic figure from the history books. Not solely angry, she’s also driven by love, susceptible to heartbreak, fearless and a woman of strong faith.

“She was a woman who cared deeply about people, about the welfare, the way in which people were treated. I just connected to that on a human level. I think that was the special thing about her, that made her more of a superhero than anything, the fact that she was so grounded, so human, so real and then on top of which spun things around that feel impossible to change the world,” Erivo said.

Many retellings of slavery era stories can leave black viewers extremely uncomfortable with the trauma of witnessing the large scale, graphic brutality inflicted on black people, but Harriet’s inspirational tone is at the surface.

Viewers don’t have to wade through gratuitous violence to find the message that celebrates black women as both soft and strong, and recognises black people’s long history of demonstrating incredible resilience.

The approach focused on keeping the dignity of those portrayed intact, says Erivo.

“Kasi, and I think all of us, we knew that we didn’t want to use that [physical violence] as much because I think we’ve all been traumatised enough. I think black people have seen black bodies traumatised enough in these films and we wanted to see something else, we wanted to show something else that didn’t traumatise but made people think about the humanity,” said Erivo.


In the UK, period dramas are often devoid of black characters, meaning it’s rare to see black women in historical western dress such as corsets and petticoats. The costumes in this epic tale, which range from Tubman’s plain and dirty plantation rags through to her elaborate full skirts, chart the different stages of her journey and character development.

For Erivo, they were a vital ingredient in her process of inhabiting the role…

Read the rest of our interview with Cynthia Erivo, in the next issue of The Voice Newspaper – out Thursday.

Harriet is in cinemas now

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