The true story of Harriet Tubman is finally brought to the screen in the new film, Harriet. Cynthia Erivo stars as the runaway slave whose courage in the face of systemic terror and oppression continues to inspire believers in racial equality and civil rights to this day. It’s a harrowing and inspirational film about slavery in America and how it took a violent and bloody Civil War to end the practice of humans owning other humans like property.
Leslie Odom Jr (Hamilton, Murder on the Orient Express) plays a key supporting role in Harriet, as William Still, the real-life historical figure who is often called “The Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of many escaped slaves who passed through Philadelphia. These stories would be collected in a book, called The Underground Railroad, which remains one of the most important historical texts from the era.
At a New York City press day for Harriet, Screen Rant sat down with Odom to discuss his work in the film, and the real life exploits of William Still, a man who was born with a strong moral compass and the simple – yet still controversial – belief that every human being should be free from chains of bondage.
Harriet is out now in theaters nationwide.
There’s something really interesting about… There’s so much really interesting about this movie, but one thing is that there aren’t so many depictions of black people in the North during antebellum slavery.
Was there anything you learned playing that role, of a character who was not a slave in that era? I’m thinking of Roots, which is set entirely in the South, and this is not. Could you talk about those two worlds of America at that time, and even now?
I think that all of those people, all those black people living in the North in antebellum slavery would have still had their roots down south. They would have still had major connections. To talk about a person like William, he was raised by two escaped slaves. His mother made attempts at escape twice before she was successful, with her four children; two girls, two boys. On the third escape attempt, she had to make the impossible decision to leave her two sons behind. And so William was born in her new life, in the North. But imagining what that would have been like, for William to have been raised by a woman who was potentially grieving for the rest of her life, how could she not? These are the decisions that slavery made black people make. To leave their wife behind, to leave their husband behind, to leave their children behind. So yes, there is a cleanness that I think he has, there is a polish that he has, that Harriet just didn’t have any need for, or connection to. They’re joined in their life’s work, their life’s passion. But I thought there might be some potential for comedy and combustion, you know, in how different they were. Those two different portraits of black life, living at the same time, in America.
I think you touched on it a little bit, but why do you think he was so obsessed… Obsessed might be a strong word, but with documenting every escaped slave who goes through Philly?
Sure. Great question. I think that his instinct… There’s a lot in this movie about instinct. Harriet is guided by the voice of God, by her visions. That’s her intuition. That’s her instinct. That’s the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, (telling her to) “Go left.” You know… There’s something in William that realized, “I need to write this down.” He risked… All this stuff had to be done under deep cover. He risked the movement, he risked the identities of people in the movement, he risked his life and everybody involved, because he knew, “I’ve gotta write this down for my kids, for my grandkids. They need to hear this story.” Thank God for his instinct.
Last question, did you have any access to any of those records, those documents, did you learn anything that surprised you?
Oh yes. It’s called The Underground Railroad. The original printing was 800-900 pages, but there’s an abridged version that is the best of it. It’s about 150-200 pages of the narratives that William compiled. They are fascinating and heartbreaking and mind-blowing. What people had do to… It wasn’t easy. It was never ever simple. So reading these stories of ingenuity and brilliance, of how people outsmarted slave catchers and outsmarted their owners to make it to freedom is fascinating. They are movies. You pick up the slave narratives, The Underground Railroad, and it’s like, they leap off the page. The stories leap off the page.
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