National Museum of African American History and Culture Hosts 'Harriet' Premiere

Cynthia Erivo - Getty - H 2019
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The Tuesday event in Washington, D.C., saw the film's stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was the backdrop for Tuesday night’s premiere of Harriet, the Harriet Tubman biopic. The film stars Cynthia Erivo as the eponymous freedom fighter, Leslie Odom Jr. as her conspiratorial Underground Railroad conductor William Still, and Janelle Monáe as a free black woman named Marie Buchanon who aids Harriet in her efforts. 

The project endeavors to bring audiences into the world of Tubman. “I wanted people to see her humanity,” Erivo told The Hollywood Reporter. “We know that she ran the hundred miles to freedom. We know that she came back and helped people escape again and again. But we don’t really hear about who she was, which is what this wonderful film does, bringing her humanity to the screen.”

“It’s a very accessible story, and she’s a very accessible character,” director Kasi Lemmons told THR. “Harriet was motivated by love of her family; that transcends race and boundaries. What I really want to bring to light is her courage and her womanhood so that you feel like you’ve actually spent time with this beautiful person. I want you to feel like you had lunch with her.”

Producer Debra Martin Chase emphasized that the movie is "not about slavery." “It’s about empowerment and freedom. Yes, slavery was an unspeakable, brutal system — we know that. But this is about a woman who couldn’t read or write and was destined to be a slave her entire life, but then decided no, that’s not going to be her life. She got her courage from her faith in God, but she was one of those people who are just born to be extraordinary. One of the messages of this movie is that you don’t control the circumstances into which you’re born, but you do control who you become and what you make of your life.”

No stranger to playing pivotal historical figures, Odom Jr. takes on the role of William Still, the abolitionist and historian who recorded the real-life stories of people on the Underground Railroad. “There are a lot of facts that you’ve got to get right, but I learned the first time around playing a historical figure that I’m not on stage presenting an Aaron Burr book report,” says Odom Jr. “Audiences aren’t coming to hear my William Still research paper. You have to make sure there’s blood pumping in the veins and a heart beating in the chest, that there are real motivations behind what these people do. The thing that makes them relatable and timeless is their passion, their drive, their desire, their sex, their anger, their rage. The clothes that they wore and the world they walked around in was different, but what animated them was the same as what we feel today.”

While Tubman lived until the age of 91 — and became, among other things, both a suffragette and a spy for the Union army, the film focuses on the decade during the mid-1800s when she escaped slavery and then led more slaves to freedom. The screenplay, which was originally written by Gregory Allen Howard, had been on Chase’s radar for the past eight years and was updated by Lemmons, but with an eye toward maintaining Tubman’s profile as a “historical action heroine,” Chase told THR.

“One of the biggest challenges was telling Harriet’s story accurately and truthfully,” film editor Wyatt Smith told THR. “She went through so much over the 91 years of her life, but we focus on only 10 years. We wanted to make sure that we were honest while keeping the film inspirational, where you hear her story and you want to go do better things and be a better person.”

Castmembers of all ages seem to embody that appreciation and call to action. Jennifer Nettles, whose character Eliza is “Harriet’s nemesis,” points out one of the film’s cautionary tales that’s still relevant today: “This film is as much about family separation within slavery as it is about the faith that Harriet had to escape to freedom. We see family separation happening right now, within this country. We need to remember our mistakes so as not to repeat them.”

And Odom Jr. highlights how Harriet shows us that change can occur not just at the systemic, macro levels, but also through the brave and selfless actions of individuals: “The story of Harriet Tubman is the story of the power of the individual and of what one person can do with sheer force of will, faith and determination. It’s a reminder of the power of what you and I both have within us.”