Focus Features brings the story of an activist icon to the big screen with an action-packed campaign.
Cynthia Erivo stars as the iconic Harriet Tubman, the former slave who escaped her captors and went on to take matters into her own hands in the new movie Harriet. The movie follows Tubman from the time of her escape to her quest to free others still suffering from the shackles of slavery through the Underground Railroad.
Unlike other biopics the movie doesn’t seem to follow Tubman from childhood, attempting to capture her entire life. Instead if focuses on this one important period of her life when she grew from someone unsure of what future she would have to one where she was defining her own destiny.
To sell the movie – which tells an important story in American history – Focus Features has run a campaign that ups the drama of the events depicted, presenting Tubman as a social activist hero. Tracking estimates an opening weekend upwards of $5 million, but the weak 63 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating may indicate it could be hurt by poor reviews and word of mouth.
July brought the release of the first one-sheet (from marketing agency BOND). Tubman is presented as some kind of secret agent on the poster, barely emerging from the shadows with gun in hand and her face still obscured by the hat she wears. It’s an attempt to present the historical figure as an action-oriented leader, someone not afraid to get in the thick of things in service to her cause. Copy at the top reads like a personal credo, reminding the audience to “Live free or die” while at the bottom the audience is told this is based on “the “unbelievable true story of an American legend.”
The second poster shows the floating heads of Tubman, William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanan (Janelle Monáe), two important figures in Tubman’s quest. Below those heads is the figure of a gun-toting Tubman standing against the breaking dawn. It’s a design that doesn’t send the message the movie is a historical drama but that it’s an action-packed story.
A third poster (by marketing agency Gravillis Inc) almost seems like it’s for a different movie. The overly-stylized “H” that’s placed in front of Tubman and the way she’s shown wearing what might as well be a costume or uniform of some sort further the feeling the marketers are selling this less as a serious film and more like Van Helsing.
Harriet is on the run from her slaver as the first trailer (7.4 million views on YouTube), released in late July, begins. She’s willing to risk her own life to be free, finally achieving her goal and given the chance to create her own identity. Once she’s safe she becomes determined to go back and free the rest of her family, once more putting her own safety at risk. Her repeated success results in being introduced to the Underground Railroad, but the people who are looking for her want her dead and the odds of her escaping seem to drop each time.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website opens with the trailer and, after you close it, offers little beyond the usual array of content Focus always puts on its site. That material is laid out nicely enough, but it’s simply not very much. Missing, unfortunately, is any background on the real life Tubman or links to resources where people can learn more about her.
Advertising and Publicity
The Austin Film Festival announced in August that the movie would screen there in October. It was also scheduled for the Urbanworld Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, the latter of which generated mostly positive reviews, especially for Ervo’s performance.
An extended TV spot came out in early October that shared some of the trailer’s more dramatic moments while focusing on the inclusion of the original song “Stand Up” by Cynthia Erivo. A bit later on an official lyric video that also included footage from the film was released.
A very strange video titled “Her Story” was released a bit later that plays like a dramatic version of the trailer, just about half as long. What’s odd about it is the text at the bottom of the screen that offers Wikipedia-like factoids about Tubman, perhaps to help explain the background of the woman in a way the trailer can’t. There’s a better way to do this, though.
The first clip released shows Harriet getting some pushback to her plan to go rescue more of those still enslaved and reacting badly to being told she can’t do something. A second also has her discussing going and freeing her husband, family and others.
Media and Press
While at Toronto there were numerous interviews with Enrivo allowing her to talk about finding the real Tubman underneath the history and how they wanted to show a well-rounded portrait of the woman, not a caricature or sketch.
There was an interview with composer Terence Blanchard where he talked about creating the movie’s period-appropriate score. Director Kasi Lemmons spoke about directing this film in particular as well as her frustration with the industry that’s restricted her opportunities along with her determination to keep at it. Another interview with Lemmons had her commenting on how she connected with the material.
A Variety cover story included Lemmons and Enrivo talking about the long road the film took to production, something they say indicates a new willingness in Hollywood to make movies about women of color.
It’s undoubtedly great to see someone like Tubman finally get her turn on the big screen, especially in a story that appears to put her front and center as someone who makes her own rules and follows what she believes God has set as her purpose without compromise. She is going to fight the injustice being done to her and her people regardless of anyone’s opinion or beliefs.
The trailers are great on that front, but the posters are still a little odd in their presentation of Tubman as a costumed hero. She may have had a go-to outfit for her travels, but the insistance on showing her like Wynonna Earp is a bit perplexing and maybe even a little off-putting.
Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that a movie like this getting made is an accomplishment that should be recognized and it’s certainly a story worth understanding a bit more deeply.
Picking Up the Spare
Lots more interviews leading up to and immediately following the movie’s release, with Lemmons talking about the long road taken to get Tubman’s story told, deciding to focus on Tubman’s early years and why she avoided some of the most cruel aspects of slavery.
Odom Jr. and Erivo spoke about their hope more movies like this will be made while an interview with writer Gregory Allen Howard covered how much had to change in Hollywood for this one to be made in the first place. Similar ground was covered in this profile, including a troubling anecdote from an earlier attempt.
How Erivo created the original song “Stand Up” was covered in this interview, part of a THR cover story. She and Lemmons appeared on “PBS Newshour” to discuss making the movie and were interviewed about their decision to focus on freedom over slavery.
Focus released a new featurette focusing on the scene of Tubman choosing her new name and another with the starts sharing stories from the set. The latest installment of the studio’s “Reel Destinations” series also visited locations from the movie. There was also another entry in its “My First Gig” series with the cast.
Regal Cinemas was given an exclusive featurette with Lemmons and Erivo talking about the story and its history. A short MovieClips featurette had Monae talking about the inspiration Tubman has provided her.
The full video for Erivo’s “Stand Up” was finally released.
There was a feature on the work of the movie’s director of photography and composer and how they did their jobs. Lemmons again spoke about how she sought to tell the story of the journey Tubman went on.