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Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet — the first feature biopic about African American civil rights activist Harriet Tubman — has been racking up major nominations this awards season.
Among them: star Cynthia Erivo is up for two Golden Globes, one for best actress in a motion picture drama and the other for best original song (with Joshuah Brian Campbell) for “Stand Up.” Erivo also earned a SAG Award nomination for best performance by an actress in a leading role.
The film portrays Tubman’s life story, from her daring escape out of slavery to her role as conductor of the Underground Railroad. The narrative plays out like a “chase movie,” writes The Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney. (Cicely Tyson portrayed the character in the 1978 NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses.)
The film starts out with Tubman retrieving a will that states her family should have been freed years ago. But when her husband shows the documentation to her slave owner, Edward Brodess, rather than emancipate the family, Brodess rips up the paper. Soon after, Edward’s son Gideon makes a plan to separate Tubman from her family. The thought of losing her loved ones fuels Tubman’s desire to fight for freedom.
Throughout the film, audiences follow Tubman’s journey toward Philadelphia, where the runaway soon transforms into an iconic hero.
The cast also includes Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Joe Alwyn and Omar Dorsey. Since the movie hit theaters Nov. 1, it’s earned $42.2 million at the domestic box office.
Read on to find out the real-life inspirations behind the characters in Harriet.
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
Before Harriet Tubman helped free hundreds of families through the Underground Railroad, a furtive organization composed of individuals with the goal to liberate all slaves, she used the escape route herself to forge a path to freedom.
Born into slavery around 1820, Tubman, aka Minty, had eight siblings and lived in Dorchester County, Maryland. After getting hit on the head with a two-pound stone, just one of the many violent incidents imposed on her during her life as a slave, the activist suffered from seizures and intense headaches for years to come. But she was also intensely spiritual and believed that God was speaking to her through these episodes and vivid dreams, as depicted in the film.
In 1849, Tubman made the decision to escape slavery after her master’s death, fearing the possibility of getting separated from her family. Though her two brothers initially set out with her, they got cold feet after Tubman’s owner posted a letter of their escape and put out a reward for them. This left Tubman alone on her journey to freedom. But the activist had heard about the mysterious Underground Railroad, and with the help of individuals involved in the abolitionist movement, she made the 90-mile journey to freedom.
The former slave eventually arrived in Philadelphia, but after working and saving up some money, she planned to return for her family. Eventually, Tubman went on to save not only her loved ones, but scores of others. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, making it easier to re-capture recently freed slaves, Tubman even reconfigured the route of the Underground Railroad. Along with liberating former slaves, Tubman contributed to the Civil War and was a cook and nurse for the Union army. More than that, however, she was a spy and continued to help free slaves during the course of the war.
Cynthia Erivo plays Tubman in the film and has already received praise for her portrayal of the civil rights activist, with some saying the British actress may receive an Oscar nomination for her performance, which — with a win — could result in her becoming the youngest performer to receive EGOT status.
The actress knew from a young age that she wanted to sing and act, which eventually led her to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She turned heads when she was cast in the Broadway performance of A Color Purple as Cecile.
Erivo appeared on NBC’s Today and spoke about the importance of playing Tubman. “I put my heart and soul into it,” Erivo said. “It means the world to me. She means the world to me.”
Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still
Leslie Odom Jr. plays William Still, a key player in the Underground Railroad. Part of the organization for over a decade, Stills helped free more than 800 individuals.
As a child, his mother escaped slavery and fled to her husband, who had recently bought his emancipation. Unfortunately, she was only able to take two of her children along, Still being one of them. The family moved to Philadelphia and Still made it a priority to study, despite not being enrolled in school. He got a job as a custodian at the Pennsylvania Society of the Abolition of Slavery, where he also helped runaway slaves to freedom — including the older brother he and his family left behind.
As he began to help more and more people, Still compiled all of their information into a book known as The Underground Railroad Records, which has become an important historical document.
Odom spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his role, saying he believes more movies should be made about Still’s book.
“The Underground Railroad was a book also, you know, of escaped slaves,” Odom Jr. said. “When they find themselves on William’s doorstep, he risked his life to record their stories of courage and bravery to make it to freedom. So, I think there’s lots of movies in there.”
Odom rose to prominence starring in the Broadway adaptation of Hamilton as Aaron Burr, but has also appeared in television shows such as Law & Order: SVU and films like Murder on the Orient Express. He is set to appear alongside Orlando Bloom and Freida Pinto in the movie The Many Saints in Newark in 2020.
Jennifer Nettles as Eliza Brodess
Country singer Jennifer Nettles plays real-life character Eliza Brodess. After her husband’s death, Brodess inherits Tubman and planned to sell her to pay off her family’s death. But before she gets the chance, Tubman escapes, causing Brodess to publish an ad in the newspaper publicizing an award for Tubman’s capture. Besides that, there isn’t much known about the slave owner, except that she was said to be a cruel woman.
Nettles spoke to Parade about the challenges of embodying such an unlikable character. “I think as an actress it is absolutely not only so much fun, but so enriching and so important to do, because there is really nothing redeemable about Eliza,” she said. “So, I really had to get in touch with and try to find a kernel of humanity in her, and that, as a storyteller, as someone who loves characters, that was so fun for me to be able to explore.”
Nettles, a part of the singing duo Sugarland, has been making the move toward acting, recently appearing in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones as Aimee Leigh Gemstone. The actress has also portrayed the mother of country superstar Dolly Parton in Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love.
Clarke Peters as Ben Ross
Clarke Peters plays Ben Ross, Tubman’s father. Ross was freed from slavery when he was 55 and went on to become a well-respected timber estimator. After getting his freedom, Ross eventually was able to afford his wife’s emancipation. When Tubman returned for her brothers in 1854, Ross was able to pay for their freedom as well.
Throughout his career, the legendary actor has appeared in several iconic roles, but is most known for playing Detective Lester Freamon in HBO’s The Wire.
Omar Dorsey as Bigger Long
In the film, Bigger Long is a slave catcher — who also is black. Long is hired to track down Harriet. Though the character isn’t based off of a specific individual, the idea is plausible, as there were known to be black individuals involved in this type of work.
In an email to Slate, Joshua Rothman, chair of the University of Alabama’s History department, said black slave catchers most likely didn’t work in the South, but were more likely to be found in border states or in the North.
Omar Dorsey portrays Bigger Long. Dorsey has appeared in films such as Django Unchained and Selma, which also grapple with the atrocities of slavery. But in talking to The Washington Post, Dorsey said Harriet is different from other slavery narratives.
“What I’ll say about Harriet is that this is a freedom movie,” Dorsey said. “She’s out of slavery within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and the rest of the movie is about her coming back and getting her family and the other blacks through the Underground Railroad and to freedom. And that’s the difference between this film and like …12 Years a Slave, which was important,” he said.
The actor has starred in two of Ava DuVernay’s projects — Queen Sugar and When They See Us — and is currently filming the new movie in the Halloween franchise, Halloween Kills.
Janelle Monae as Marie Buchanon
Singer Janelle Monae portrays the character Marie Buchanon, a successful free woman who owns a boarding house in Philadelphia. Though Monae’s character was created for the film, she helps Harriet realize her potential and sets her up with one of her first jobs as a domestic worker.
Monae has alluded to Harriet Tubman’s legacy many times in her music, and said it was a no-brainer to join the cast, in an interview with AJC.
“[Tubman’s] always been a part of me and a part of my DNA,” Monáe said, “and when I got asked by Cynthia and Kasi to be involved in the film … I said, ‘Absolutely. These are two sisters working together to lead the revolution.”
Since her debut album released in 2010, Monae has had a successful career as an artist. She’s recently shifted toward acting, casted in praised films such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Monae will appears in the remake of Lady and the Tramp on Disney+.
Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess
Alwyn plays Gideon Brodess, son of Eliza. Though the Brodess family did have a son, little was known about him.
In the film, Gideon’s character is mostly fictionalized. THR critic David Rooney writes that Tubman had a strange bond with him, as she raised him when he was younger. But after his father’s death, Gideon decides to sell Tubman, becoming the catalyst for her escape.
Joe Alwyn’s career is burgeoning, as the English actor has appeared in acclaimed films The Favourite and Boy Erased. He is currently filming Last Letter From Your Lover, a movie adapted from a Jojo Moyes novel, opposite Shailene Woodley.
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