When it was announced last year that the super-talented Cynthia Erivo had snagged the role of Black icon, Harriet Tubman, in the hero’s first-ever biopic, many applauded. Erivo, who’s one award short from earning an EGOT, is a no-brainer to play the woman who helped free many slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Still, some took issue with Erivo’s casting in Harriet: calling it just another time that a Black Brit “took” a role from an American actor. It’s an issue once-raised by Samuel L. Jackson, and one that even Erivo’s co-star Leslie Odom Jr. said he could relate to.
Ahead of the film’s release on Friday, Erivo addressed the criticism, calling for those to at least give the Kasi Lemmons’ film a chance.
“People are definitely allowed to have feelings. People are definitely allowed to have opinions because we’re human beings,” Erivo told ESSENCE. “I don’t want to negate that at all. I do want people to see this and hopefully change their minds.”
In the film, shot entirely in Virginia just one state away from where the real-life Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, Erivo embodies the hero as she escapes from her own plantation to Philadelphia where she blends in as a free-woman. Harriet then follows Tubman as she painstakingly travels back and forth to free not only relatives, but perfect strangers.
“The most important thing is that we’re getting to tell the story at all,” Erivo continued. “This is a story that was held on the shelf for a really long time. It was written 20 years ago…and just 10 years ago, [producer] Debra Martin Chase was determined to make it.”
Erivo said that Chase tapped her three years ago for the film, and it’s took just as long to usher it to the big screen.
The actress’ co-star Leslie Odom Jr.—who portrays Black abolitionist William Still, a leader in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society—said he “understands the frustration” of critics.
“It’s about people that feel like they’ve been ignored, and people that feel like ‘Why isn’t my Blackness enough?Why isn’t my Americanness enough?’ I’ve felt it before myself,” the Hamilton star revealed.
Still, Odom Jr. wants to remind critics that this isn’t the only biopic that will be made of the courageous woman. “I believe this is the first, but it won’t be the last,” he added.
Harriet, also starring Janelle Monae and Vanessa Bell Calloway, is in theaters Friday, Nov. 1.