Skip to content
Breaking News Alert This Week In Lawfare Land: 'Deadly Force'

Harriet Tubman Biopic’s Trailer Drops, To Excitement and Controversy

While some are still offended by the concept of a British actor playing an African-American, Cynthia Erivo’s upcoming film, ‘Harriet,’ appears to have all the makings of a success


The trailer for the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic, “Harriet,” was released on July 23 to great anticipation. The film stars 2016 Tony winners Cynthia Erivo as the eponymous Harriet and Leslie Odom Jr. as friend and ally William Still. If the trailers are an indication, the film looks well made, intense, and suitably powerful, with solid performances by Erivo, Odom Jr, Janelle Monáe, and Joe Alwyn.

Harriet Tubman is a historical figure so well-suited for a biopic that it is a wonder that it took so long to have this film made. While Tubman was the subject of several operas and novels and a supporting role on the TV series “Underground,” there has not been a cinematic depiction of the abolitionist and political activist until now. In 2015, Viola Davis was attached to an HBO-produced Tubman project, but the film never came to fruition.

There has been a minor controversy surrounding the casting of the British Erivo as Tubman, as some have argued that the role of one of America’s most important civil rights figures should go to an African-American, because people will never be satisfied without something to complain about. This offense sees a resurgence of those who felt Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Get Out” and David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma should have gone to African American actors, despite cinema’s long history of British actors playing Americans and vice versa, including Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, all of whom took home Oscars for their efforts.

Erivo is a talented actress, as anyone who saw “Widows,” “Bad Times at the El Royale,” or “The Color Purple” can attest, and she is an Oscar away from an EGOT. If she brings the same passion, presence, and believability to Harriet that she has to all other projects, than the performance should be a success, and any criticisms will likely come down to oddly specific and pointless identity politics.

Director Kasi Lemmons and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard have their work cut out for them to make their film as fascinating as the life of its subject. Tubman was born into slavery, where rampant physical abuses led to a childhood head injury that gave her life-long seizures, headaches, and visions.

Although she was never taught to read as a child, her mother taught her the stories of the Bible, and she was inspired by the Old Testament stories of deliverance and salvation. At the age of 27, Tubman escaped from slavery using the network called The Underground Railroad.

Upon arriving in the north, Tubman risked her hard-won freedom 13 times to rescue around 70 people from slavery, earning her the nickname Moses. With her safety and life in the hands of God, a close network of friends, and her revolver, she bravely evaded capture and went on to fight for abolition and later civil rights, working first with John Brown’s insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and later with the U.S. government during the Civil War. In her later years, Tubman became involved with the women’s suffrage movement.

If the trailer is any indication, it appears to stick mostly to the true story, with some minor changes typical of the biopic genre. It appears as though Tubman will escape on her own in the film, and only discover the Underground Railroad upon reaching freedom in the north.

Likewise, her name change, which in real life likely occurred upon her marriage, is given the added weight of marking her newfound freedom. Further, in order to add some character drama to an already intense and action-packed film, the trailer implies the addition of a fictionalized tension between Tubman and the leadership of the Underground Railroad, merely for suggesting what the group had already been doing.

Of course, we will all know more when the film comes out. I, for one, am very much looking forward to it.