'Harriet' Writer Talks Bringing Tubman's Story to Hollywood After 20 Years

Cynthia Erivo attends the Premiere Of Focus Features' "Harriet" - Getty -H 2019
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The cast and crew of 'Harriet' — including Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monae — gathered on the red carpet for the film's premiere at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles Tuesday night. Many reveled in being able to tell Tubman's story.

Over 100 years since American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s death, her story is finally hitting the big screen.

The cast and crew of Harriet — including Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monae — gathered on the red carpet for the film’s premiere at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles Tuesday night. Many reveled in being able to tell Tubman’s story.

“It’s overwhelming,” Monae said. “How could this woman be so selfless, so fearless? The epitome of it. She’s an American hero, and I’m so honored we’re honoring her.”

Harriet, which opens Friday, has been in the works for decades. Despite the story being a crucial part of American history, the film couldn't be made until the political climate in Hollywood shifted, said co-writer Gregory Allen Howard, who developed the original screenplay and championed the idea for over 20 years.

“What I waited for more than anything else is for the whole industry to change,” he said. “There needed to be the #OscarsSoWhite and [more] diversity in Hollywood. All that had to happen, because anybody who greenlighted this movie was risking their job and/or career.”

He continued, “I realize now, people were scared. I was getting thrown out of offices for two decades. Now they’re not scared anymore. They can take a diverse story to the boss, and even though he may be a 58-year-old white man, he’s gonna say, ‘Oh yeah. I saw Straight Outta Compton. That was good!’ It’s a different environment. And for Harriet to get made, at the end of the day, we needed that.”

Harriet dives deep into Tubman’s life, revealing many personal details about the woman who made such a mark on American history. 

“It’s funny, I thought I knew a lot more than I knew [about Tubman],” said director Kasi Lemmons. “Once I started diving into the research, I realized I didn’t know a lot about the complexity of her life and the lives of her family and the people she encountered.”

In addition to being one of the most famous conductors of the Underground Railroad and leading troops for the Union Army, Tubman was married twice — a fact several cast members said they didn't know before the film.

“I didn’t know she was ever in love,” actor Hunter Hall told The Hollywood Reporter. “You never get that. You never really get that she was this woman who loved, and I think that’s so important to the story. It’s so important to her life and how the chain of events happened because of that. She was a real woman, you know?”

Monae felt the same. "I didn’t get that opportunity growing up to know that [about her relationships]," she said, "but I think this film gives you a glimpse into, as a woman, what that meant, to be in love and what it meant to be a woman ... that was so strong and so powerful, and just having to deal with men during that time.”

Tubman is portrayed by British actress Cynthia Erivo, who said the physicality of the role challenged her most. Wading through rivers and running through thick forests in the middle of the night are just a few of the intensely physical scenes Erivo had to shoot.

"I knew that it was going to be consistently physical, and I knew we would be working through the winter, and I knew a lot of it would be outside," she told THR. "So it was about trying to get myself ready mentally and physically to be able to do that."

Erivo radiated thanks on the carpet and inside the theater before the screening, taking the mic to make sure everyone knew about her gratitude.

"It's meant the world to us to see your faces," she told the audience. "To me, it's been an incredible journey to be a part of the storytelling of this incredible woman who is the example, the light, and the reason why many of us will continue to be strong in ourselves and find that small, still voice that tells us that we can change the world."

After the screening, Erivo performed a powerful rendition of the film's original song, "Stand Up," with a choir.