TORONTO — During her superhuman treks to help enslaved friends and family flee Maryland for freedom via the Underground Railroad network, American abolitionist Harriet Tubman found herself in Canada.
As the new film “Harriet” shows, the freedom fighter’s dangerous missions through vast landscapes and challenging weather on foot brought her to St. Catharines, Ont., where she spent some time after U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The act allowed plantation owners to recapture escaped slaves in the U.S., leaving Canada the only safe haven with its Slavery Abolition Act.
“At that point Harriet realizes if she’s going to keep on this mission — and the Underground Railroad realizes — ‘We have to go all the way into Canada, and as soon as we cross the border into Canada, we’re free people. There are still problems and there’s still racism, but we’re free,'” said Kasi Lemmons, the film’s director and co-writer.
“Everybody thinks of Niagara Falls as this wonder of the world, but actually they had to cross (it). There’s a bridge that they took across Niagara Falls into freedom. Many people ended up in St. Catharines, and Harriet ended up in St. Catharines.”
British actor Cynthia Erivo — a Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner — stars as Tubman, who was born Araminta (Minty) Ross to enslaved parents in Maryland.
The film follows her journey escaping from a plantation as a young adult and reaching freedom in Pennsylvania, where she changes her name to Harriet Tubman and begins working with the Anti-Slavery Society.
Tubman eventually returned to Maryland at least a dozen times to help free others, and earned the status of “conductor” and the nickname “Moses” on the Underground Railroad secret network of safe houses.
The British-born Erivo said she went through a “roller coaster” of emotions in portraying the iconic heroine, who is seen in the film as a deeply spiritual woman channelling her faith to get through brutal circumstances.
“But I felt very well supported. I felt super protected, and I’m glad it was Kasi that was there on those days,” Erivo said, sitting alongside Lemmons in an interview at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“When it was really tough and it really hurt, Kasi was there literally holding my hand. I would literally cry on her shoulder. But it was necessary in order to get to where we got to.”
Lemmons — whose 1997 feature directorial debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” was inducted into the National Film Registry last year — also felt incredible pressure.
“My heart started racing, like pounding,” she said, recalling the moment she was asked to direct the film and co-write with Gregory Allen Howard.
“It was really, really physical and I realized I was both tremendously excited and afraid, intimidated, and I thought, ‘OK, that’s good at this point in my life. I feel alive and I feel challenged and I feel like wow, what an opportunity,” continued Lemmons, who is also an actress with credits including “Silence of the Lambs” and “School Daze.”
“I kept my mind on Harriet and doing this for her. Her story needs to be told.”
Indeed, many have wondered why Tubman’s story hasn’t been depicted on the big screen before.
Lemmons said several Tubman biopics have been attempted but never came to fruition, partly because “it’s hard to get any movie off the ground.”
“And it’s hard to get movies with a black female protagonist in a period film,” she added.
“These are crazy obstacles. It seems extraordinary to us because it’s like it’s a no-brainer, but Hollywood’s a hard place.”
Other cast members include Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, and Joe Alwyn.
Lemmons and the team did tireless research to accurately portray Tubman, who was surprisingly “tiny and strong and could run fast,” said the director.
They shot in thick mud, rain and other trying conditions in Virginia in fall 2018. Spider and snake wranglers were on hand while shooting in the woods.
All that was only a tiny slice of what Tubman actually went through, they noted.
“I joked that at the end of it, if I ever saw another speck of mud I would run in the other direction,” said Erivo.
“But it all added to the authenticity of it, the feel of it.”
“Harriet” comes amid debate over the Trump administration’s recent decision to delay a plan to put Tubman on the $20 U.S. bill.
Lemmons said she feels the U.S. is still struggling with its history and “what freedom means.”
Tubman is an example of how individuals can make a difference, she added.
“I think under the weight of so much going on in the world, it’s easy to get lost in surfing your phone for anything that takes your mind off what’s going on as opposed to saying, ‘Wow, within me I have the power to make change. I have the power to do incredible things, but my courage has to be stronger than my fear,'” said Lemmons.
“The thing I feel is completely apparent with this movie is the strength and the will of a woman, and the choices that she made … the agency that she gave herself to do these incredible things,” added Erivo.
“And I think that now more than ever, women need to be encouraged to know that they are stronger than people perceive them to be, and I think that Harriet is the perfect example of that.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press