The story of Harriet Tubman has been waiting to be told for a long time.
Shamefully the film has been in the works since the ‘90s, but, as its screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard revealed in interviews this week, it didn’t get off the ground because executives thought the story of the 19th-century American slave-turned-emancipator wouldn’t make money at the box office.
Howard also said that in the early 1990s, one studio head was pushing for Julia Roberts – yes, famous white actress Julia Roberts – to play the part of Harriet Tubman.
Thankfully for us all that didn’t happen, and instead Cynthia Erivo takes on the role in this story of Tubman’s determined fight against slavery’s undisputable evil.
It focuses on The Underground Railroad – neither underground, nor an actual railroad, but a network of secret routes and safe houses which allowed slaves to sneak away from plantations in the South to freedom in the North.
Once she has escaped her own master (a wonderfully slippery and sinister portrayal by Joe Alwyn) Tubman goes back to escort first her family and friends, and then others, to safety, risking being returned to the plantation, or worse, every time.
We follow Harriet through forests and across rivers with bated breath, as Erivo manages to pull off the tricky task of engaging us with a character who was, by all accounts, steadfast and sensible (you’d have to be to take more than 300 slaves from right under their masters’ noses).
Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr add to the richness of the cast, but Erivo rightly takes centre stage, giving Tubman the biopic she deserves – no Julia Roberts required.