WASHINGTON — There’s a pivotal scene in “Harriet” that finds Araminta Ross — the slave who would go on to help more than a hundred people escape enslavement — gazing toward a gorgeous rising sun as she crosses state lines into freedom. A few scenes later, she will declare herself a new, more widely familiar name: Harriet Tubman.
The sun feels like a visual effect, designed to imbue the moment with the glimmer of hope as Tubman concludes her first harrowing 100-mile journey. But the scene, filmed at the tail end of a gloomy day, actually features a very real sunset.
“It came out of nowhere. The clouds parted — it was this rich orange-yellow-red sun,” actress Cynthia Erivo recalled in a recent interview at a Washington hotel. “It felt like a miracle on set that day. And to be able to get to the point where we’re able to finally move Harriet into freedom felt really monumental.”
It seems fitting that a miracle would happen during filming for the first major motion picture to tell Tubman’s story. Various iterations of a Tubman biopic have been in the works for decades, but “Harriet,” which hits theaters Friday, is the first to make it onto the big screen.
“I’m so proud of the film and I’m proud, honestly, that I got to make it,” said director Kasi Lemmons, best known for her magnetic 1997 directorial debut feature, “Eve’s Bayou,” which was inducted into the National Film Registry last year. Lemmons co-wrote “Harriet” with screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans,” “Ali”). Howard also produced the film with Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg.
“It just feels really meaningful to have women at the top of a project about one of the most extraordinary women that’s lived,” Lemmons said.
Erivo, meanwhile, is on a short list of women who have played Tubman on-screen. Cicely Tyson portrayed the freedom fighter in the 1978 TV miniseries “A Woman Called Moses.” Aisha Hinds played her in WGN America’s abruptly canceled drama “Underground.”
Erivo, whom the producers scouted during her acclaimed Tony Award-winning run as Celie in Broadway’s “The Color Purple,” admits “it was intimidating” to play such a significant historical figure. “But I knew it was a huge responsibility,” she said. “We had this massive responsibility to try and tell the story as fully and truthfully as we possibly could.”
The casting of Erivo, who is British and of Nigerian descent, drew some controversy from those who argue that Tubman and other African American icons should be played by African American actors, specifically descendants of slaves. (Some of her critics also point to past comments by the actress that they perceived as mocking black Americans.)
“I’m a black woman first. Regardless of where I come from — London, Nigeria, wherever, my skin does not change,” Erivo said of the backlash surrounding her heritage. She hopes that her critics will give her and the film a chance: “If we don’t celebrate a moment where we get to actually tell her story in the first place, then we won’t leave any room to tell more.”
Erivo did most of her own stunts for “Harriet,” slogging through muddy terrain and freezing cold water, not to mention the emotional turmoil of portraying a woman who risked her life to free her people. But part of the challenge was reconciling the woman with the legend. “We think of her as a superhero, but we disconnect her from her humanity,” Erivo said.
Tubman’s name has long loomed large in American history, but her legacy has been prone to myths and misinformation. Though long overdue, “Harriet” is particularly well-timed, arriving just months after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced (to widespread criticism) that the new $20 bill, set to replace the visage of the nation’s slave-owning seventh president Andrew Jackson with Tubman’s, would be delayed until 2028.
“Harriet” follows Tubman’s journey from her days as a slave on the Maryland plantation of Edward Brodess to her perilous trek to Philadelphia, where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) the freed slave-turned-abolitionist who preserved accounts from fugitive slaves that he later published in 1872’s “The Underground Railroad Record.”
The film has received some criticism for focusing on the most well-known aspects of Tubman’s life, relegating less widely explored periods — such as her role as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War — to (poignant) footnotes. But Lemmons rejects the notion that “Harriet” is a paint-by-the-numbers biopic. Rather, the director said, the film zeros in on the “momentum and energy” of Tubman’s daring work.
“What she was willing to do for freedom was very exhilarating,” said Lemmons, who spent months researching Tubman. “And it was a ride that I kind of wanted you to go on — and then to notice that your heart was pounding.”
Tubman’s well-documented faith is an underlying theme in the film, with the abolitionist talking to God as she takes each life-threatening journey, made more perilous by regular fainting spells Tubman experienced following a horrific head injury she experienced as a child at the hands of an overseer.
“I realized quickly, this is a Joan of Arc story,” Lemmons said. “This is somebody who had a vision from God to save her people. And she felt guided.”
Like most biopics, the film adds a dramatic flourish to some of Tubman’s relationships, expanding the story where historical records fail to fill in the blanks. It is known that Tubman’s first husband, John, a free black man, remarried before she made her first post-freedom journey back to Maryland. “Harriet” imagines an emotional confrontation between the two when Tubman returns, blindsided to learn John — who feared her dead following her daring escape — will not be accompanying her back to Philadelphia.
The film explores an even more complicated dynamic between Tubman and Gideon (“The Favorite’s” Joe Alwyn), a fictionalized Brodess heir who becomes Harriet’s owner after the death of his father. Gideon is cruel and ruthless in his pursuit of Harriet, whose escape threatens his family’s debt-ridden farm, but in the mired system of owning other human beings for profit, he displays a warped affection for her.
Edward Brodess had a son who was around Tubman’s age, and Lemmons was fascinated by the idea that the young man would have been in charge of selling a woman he once played with as a child. In her research, Lemmons encountered unsettling photographs featuring white children of slave owners posing alongside black children their families owned. “There’s something always haunted on the faces of the enslaved children, and the white children seem completely oblivious to the pain in their eyes,” Lemmons said.
The film also shows the tension and support between former slaves and free black people through Harriet’s relationships with Still and other allies she meets through the Underground Railroad network. In portraying the abolitionist, Odom — who grew up in Philadelphia — tried to “find the people behind the statues. The blood pumping in the veins, the heart beating in the chest, the real passion, real lust, real anger. Because that’s the stuff that makes us relate to them today.” He followed the advice from “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who guided Odom when he took on the Tony-winning role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash.
“He said, ‘What connects us to the forefathers? Is there a line that we can draw between these people of color to these brilliant dead white guys?’ And it was through the humanity,” Odom recalled.
Despite the presence of two Tony Award-winning actors (not to mention singer Janelle Monáe, in a small but important role), “Harriet” is not a musical. But Erivo — an Oscar away from EGOT distinction after her “Color Purple” run — does sing, invoking lore around slaves who communicated escape plans using spirituals. She downplays her own powerhouse mezzo-soprano, lending Harriet a staid alto as she sings “Wade in the Water” and “Go Down Moses.”
The actress’ vocal range is fully showcased, however, on “Stand Up,” an original song she co-wrote for the film, which plays over the end credits. The song, an even likelier Oscar contender, ends with a reflection of Tubman’s steadfast faith and legacy, through the same words Tubman reportedly said from her deathbed in 1913: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
That legacy is one that Lemmons hopes will inspire audiences, particularly African American women. “We get to own that we had this ... superhero in our past and she’s our ancestor,” Lemmons said. “And we can draw from her courage and her force of will and feel better about all the fights that we have in front of us.”