For Cynthia Erivo, portraying Harriet Tubman in a new biopic was the role of a lifetime.
Erivo said she took the title role in “Harriet” to honor the former slave turned abolitionist by showcasing her “humanity, her life, the love of her life, the love of her family.”
“We wanted to find out the way in which we wanted to treat that, with delicacy,” Erivo said in an interview with “NBC Nightly News.”
The movie premiered Tuesday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and it opens in theaters on Nov. 1. (The movie is distributed by Focus Features, an independent film label owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
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Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, as Araminta “Minty” Ross, Tubman escaped in 1849 when she heard she was going to be sold. She later adopted her mother’s name, Harriet. Tubman worked with the Underground Railroad, the network of black people, free and enslaved, and white people who risked their lives to help escaped slaves make their way to free states and Canada in the mid-1800s.
Tubman led at least 70 enslaved friends and family from Maryland to freedom over 13 trips on the Underground Railroad, according to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center.
“She was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things,” said Mary Elliott, a curator and museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The resurgence of interest in Tubman included an announcement in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, that her image would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill by 2020. But earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the new bill would be delayed by possibly six years and may not include Tubman.
In the new movie, Leslie Odom Jr., the Tony and Grammy winning actor from “Hamilton,” plays William Still, a black man born into freedom who helped run the Underground Railroad from Philadelphia. Odom said the bravery of the abolitionists as depicted in the movie will educate audiences.
“William risked his life, and the life of a lot of people, to record these stories, to make sure there was a record of this courage,” Odom said in an interview. “You know, nobody made it to his doorstep in Philadelphia without risking their lives. Nobody made it to freedom without risking great things.”
Erivo, who is British of Nigerian descent and won a Tony and Grammy for “The Color Purple,” says Tubman’s legacy is especially inspiring to the current generation of young women.
“As a girl from London, and I don't know that many people know this of the United Kingdom, we don't have that many women of color to look to as examples,” Erivo said. “We aren't given the chance. We don't discuss the history of black people in the U.K. at all really, at great length at all. And when it comes to television and film, it's even less. And so I cling onto the women that I can find.
“And so when I came across Harriet when I was younger, she was like a torchlight," she said. "There's a woman that did that. You know? And we need that.”