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Cast and crew of Philly-set ‘Harriet’ talk about the city’s crucial role in Tubman’s legacy

'Harriet' director Kasi Lemmons and star Leslie Odom Jr. -- who grew up in East Oak Lane -- on the movie's Philadelphia setting.

4130_D002_00630_R.Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release
Credit:  Glen Wilson / Focus Features.
4130_D002_00630_R.Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features.Read moreGlen Wilson / AP

This year marks the 170th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s 1849 arrival in Philadelphia as a free woman, having just escaped slavery in Maryland.

The moment is memorialized in the new movie Harriet, when Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), on her way to the home of Underground Railroad conductor William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), looks at free black citizens calmly walking the streets of the city, and tries to adjust to this new and unfamiliar reality.

A black man selling fruit notices Tubman’s disoriented expression, tosses her an apple, and says, “There are plenty of us here. Walk like you got a right to.”

It’s a line written by Kasi Lemmons, who directed Harriet and stopped in Philadelphia Wednesday to introduce a screening of the movie at the Philadelphia Film Festival (it opens officially Friday).

“Philadelphia plays such a huge part in her story,” said Lemmons, who actually shot the Philly scenes in Petersburg, Va., but made “Philadelphia” a key setting in Harriet due to its pivotal role in Tubman’s life.

Tubman, as seen in the film, used the city as the base for several dangerous missions back to Maryland to rescue friends and family and other slaves (some 70 people in all), even after the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made Philadelphia dangerous for free blacks.

Lemmons’ research into Tubman’s life in Philadelphia also left her enchanted with Still, who (as part of his work for the city’s Anti-Slavery Society) housed, clothed, treated, and found employment for escaped slaves, Tubman included, and recorded their stories in journals that later formed the spine of his invaluable history of the Underground Railroad.

Odom, who was raised in East Oak Lane and grew up hearing stories of Tubman and Still, said he was honored to play him, and surprised to learn about the full reach of his achievements — recording the histories of escaped slaves, training black Union troops during the Civil War, and after the war, ending segregation of the city’s trolley system.

“He really is deserving of a movie in his own right,” said Odom, who attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Odom, who gained fame playing Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash Hamilton, said he’ll never tire of period dramas.

“Not really. It’s about as close to time travel as you can get," he said. "The costumes, the language, the history, it puts you almost literally in another world. And this one was a privilege to inhabit.”

Lemmons said her own research gave her new insight into Tubman. She had not understood the extent of Tubman’s religious fervor — Tubman had dreams that she considered to be of divine origin, often in the form of premonitions that had uncanny clarity (she declined to accompany John Brown on his Harpers Ferry raid because she saw it ending badly). Tubman’s extraordinary bravery and astonishing confidence, Lemmons said, came from her steadfast belief that she was doing God’s work, and operating under His protection.

As shown in the movie, Tubman operated with a speed and audacity others couldn’t match — the wheels of the Underground Railroad did not turn fast enough for her, and she often worked alone. In today’s parlance, Tubman was a disrupter.

“She absolutely wasn’t taking orders from anybody. She was going to do things her way. She was on her own mission, and [others on the Underground Railroad] were generally just trying to keep up with her,” Lemmons said.

Tubman’s labor as an enslaved woman had made her familiar with the movement of commodities like timber through Maryland, Delaware, and across the Delaware Bay and east to Cape May (where Tubman worked when free, and where a Harriet Tubman Museum is currently under construction).

Harriet shows how she used this network to get messages to slaves in the South, and to help find safe passage.

“She was part of this really complex maritime system of watermen, sailors, and dockworkers that formed this broad communications network that could get messages back and forth from North to South, a whole world that she tapped into that was entirely beyond the gaze of white people,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero and a historian who served as a consultant on the film. Tubman was the first woman to lead American soldiers in combat, Larson said, and remains one of the few to do so.

Director Lemmons is a trailblazer in her own right. She was one of the first African American women to direct a Hollywood feature — Eve’s Bayou in 1996. She’s since directed several others (Black Nativity, Talk to Me), and has been angling for years to tell the story of Tubman, whom she describes, visions and all, as “my Joan of Arc. My patron saint.”

Now that she’s accomplished her goal, she’s taking time to process some of the criticism the movie has received within the black community — objections surfaced earlier this year to the casting of Erivo, who is British. Lemmons understands the issue of representation and “culture bearing,” but she also wants people to know how hard it was to make the movie in the first place, and to make it with black women.

“Part of me is like, are you kidding — we’ve won. An African American woman got to do the Harriet Tubman story. It’s produced by an African American woman, there’s an African American production designer, an African American costume designer, an African American composer. Black women at the top, incredible black actors playing incredible black characters. We could not have approached this from a more pure place,” Lemmons said.

She specifically defended the casting and performance of Erivo.

“It could not have been a better actor-director relationship,” she said. “We could not have done more work to try to prepare her, and she could not have been more prepared.”

Lemmons also worried that casting absolutism could lead down a slippery slope — should African American actors, she wondered, not be allowed to play Nelson Mandela?

“There’s a level on which I understand [the objections]. On the other hand, do you know how long people have been trying to do this? And we ...did it.”