- The film Harriet stays true to history while taking some creative liberties by inventing and amalgamating characters for narrative efficiency.
- Cynthia Erivo delivers a powerful performance as the titular abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, and was even nominated for an Oscar for her role.
- The talented ensemble cast includes Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters, and more, who all bring depth and authenticity to their respective characters.
The filmmakers behind Harriet were tasked with securing a cast talented enough to bring the real-life figures behind Harriet Tubman’s story to life alongside some fictional and composite characters. The 2019 film, directed by Kasi Lemmons, follows the events of Tubman’s life, focusing on her escape from slavery and subsequent rescue missions as part of the Underground Railroad, which cemented her legacy as an American icon. Harriet takes some creative liberties, including inventing and amalgamating characters for the sake of narrative efficiency, but the broad strokes stay true to history.
Harriet saw a long journey to the screen, with co-writer Gregory Allen Howard first pitching the biopic under the title Freedom Fire in 1994. Howard recalls that one studio executive wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman. Thankfully, the final film is more respectful when it comes to casting Harriet’s real-life figures. That paid off, as the film’s talented ensemble is a highlight, and the actress in the titular role was even nominated for an Oscar for her lead performance.
Cynthia Erivo As Harriet Tubman
Cynthia Erivo plays the titular abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, in the movie Harriet. The biopic is fairly accurate to the true story of Harriet Tubman, who was born Araminta Ross. As depicted in the film, Harriet Tubman really did escape from slavery, making the 100-mile journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania. Once there, she took on a key role in the Underground Railroad, making numerous trips back to Maryland and rescuing dozens of enslaved people. As Harriet’s ending indicates, Tubman later went on to work as a spy and expedition leader for Union forces during the Civil War.
Erivo is an English actress and singer. Her first screen role came in 2015 with the role of Magdalene in the popular British comedy series Chewing Gum. The same year, Erivo gained widespread recognition for her lead role in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, which made her a Tony and Grammy winner. Erivo is also known for her roles as Darlene Sweet in Bad Times at the El Royale, Belle in Widows, the Blue Fairy in Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio, and Odette Raine in Luther: The Fallen Sun. For her work on Harriet, Erivo was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Actress and one for Best Original Song.
Leslie Odom Jr. As William Still
Leslie Odom Jr. portrays William Still in Harriet. As depicted in the film, he was an American abolitionist and chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society who worked with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. Leslie Odom Jr. is best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, a part which he immortalized in the 2020 Disney+ presentation of the show. Leslie Odom Jr.’s post-Hamilton career has seen the actor star in numerous major films, including One Night in Miami as the singer Sam Cooke, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery as Lionel Toussaint, and The Exorcist: Believer as Victor Fielding.
Joe Alwyn As Gideon Brodess
Joe Alwyn appears in the cast of Harriet as Gideon Brodess, the film’s antagonist and final “owner” of Harriet Tubman, who pursues her to Philadelphia following her escape from his Maryland plantation. In real life, Tubman was indeed enslaved on the plantation of the Brodess family, but there was no such person as Gideon Brodess. The character was created for the film to unify the forces of antagonism faced by the real Tubman. Joe Alwyn is a British actor best known for his roles as Masham in The Favourite, Robert Dudley in Mary Queen of Scots, and Nick in the TV series Conversations with Friends.
Janelle Monáe As Marie Buchanan
In Harriet, Janelle Monáe plays Marie Buchanan, the freeborn owner of a Philadelphia boarding house who befriends the title character, teaching her how to dress and act like a free woman. Like Gideon Brodess, Marie Buchanan is not based on a real person. In the words of Monáe (via Refinery 29), the character is “an amalgamation of historical figures and the women who did help women like Harriet [..] make a better life for themselves.” Monáe is a 10-time Grammy-nominated recording artist and actress. She also leads the Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery cast and plays Teresa in Moonlight and real-life NASA engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures.
Clarke Peters As Ben Ross
Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, is played by Clarke Peters in the film Harriet. The real Ben Ross earned his freedom at the age of 55, going on to become a successful timber estimator. However, Ross’s role in the Underground Railroad caused him to become a target, so he and his wife were forced to flee to the North. Clarke Peters has had an accomplished career; the actor is best known for his role as Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire, but he also plays Abercrombie in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Otis in Da 5 Bloods, and Harry in John Wick.
Harriet Supporting Cast & Characters
Zackary Momoh as John Tubman – Harriet Tubman’s real-life first husband, who remarries after her escape. Momoh appeared in the films Kill Team as Sergeant Bruer and Doctor Sleep as David Stone. On TV, Momoh plays Horiatio Cousens in The Nevers and Seth Butler in the miniseries Seven Seconds.
Vanessa Bell Calloway as Rit Ross – Harriet Tubman’s mother. The actress, with more than 150 credits to her name, has appeared in numerous major films, including Coming to America as Imani Izzi, What’s Love Got to Do with It as Jackie, and Lakeview Terrace as Aunt Dorrie. On TV, she plays Edie on This Is Us and Carol Fisher on Shameless.
Omar J. Dorsey as Bigger Long – A fictional Black slave catcher whom Gideon hires to help him find Harriet Tubman. Dorsey plays Sherriff Barker in the Halloween reboot trilogy and “Big Tony” Hamilton in The Blind Side, and stars as Hollywood Desonier in the Ava DuVernay-created TV series Queen Sugar.
Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Samuel Green – In Harriet, the real-life Reverend and Underground Railroad conductor Samuel Green is played by Vondie Curtis-Hall. The actor, who is married to Harriet director Kasi Lemmons, has appeared in many films including Romeo + Juliet as Captain Prince and Broken Arrow as Lt. Colonel Sam Rhodes. On TV, the actor plays Sweetie in Justified: City Primeval and Dr. Dennis Hancock in the medical drama Chicago Hope.
Tim Guinee as Thomas Garrett – A real-life abolitionist who aids Harriet Tubman in her escape. Guinee plays Scott Ryan in Homeland, Paul in Inventing Anna, and Bill Peterson in The Staircase.
Tory Kittles as Frederick Douglass – Tory Kittles makes a brief appearance in Harriet as famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. The actor has starred in several major TV series, including CBS’s The Equalizer as Marcus Dante, True Detective season 1 as Detective Thomas Pampina, and Colony as Broussard.
- Release Date:
- Kasi Lemmons
- Joe Alwyn, Tory Kittles, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Cynthia Erivo, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Antonio J. Bell, Deborah Ayorinde, Leslie Odom Jr., Jennifer Nettles, Tim Guinee, Zackary Momoh, Janelle Monae, Omar Dorsey, Clarke Peters, Henry Hunter Hall
- 125 minutes
- History, Biography, Drama
- Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons
- A film about the life of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in the U.S. South and became a Freedom Fighter who led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad.Focus Features came aboard as the movie’s distributor in September 2018. Production began in Virginia the following October and lasted through to December.Watch the Harriet Trailer
- Focus Features
- Focus Features