There’s a famous quote that has been attributed—perhaps falsely—to Harriet Tubman through the years about how she would’ve been able to free many more slaves only if they realized they were actually enslaved.
Or something like that.
I bring that up to say that despite some racially-charged, micro-aggressive attitudes (some by blacks) towards the new big picture biopic chronicling the legacy of the trailblazing abolitionist, the Kasi Lemmons-helmed Harriet has proven to be a winner at the box office.
According to Forbes, audiences turned out in a big way for the Focus Features film starring Broadway star Cynthia Erivo in the leading role as the legendary Black History Month figure—a freedom fighter who helped free hundreds of enslaved black people during the 19th century through a secret network known as The Underground Railroad.
“I’m happy to note that audiences seem to be showing up, with the film netting a solid $12 million opening weekend,” film industry writer Scott Mendelson wrote on Sunday.
“That’s a promising 3.07x multiplier from an A+ Cinemascore grade,” he added.
Running 2 hours and 5 minutes, the Debra Martin Chase-produced epic opened in a little over 2,000 theaters and outpaced big-budgeted box office juggernauts such as Malificent: Mistress of Evil and an animated adaptation of The Addams Family TV series.
Harriet, which also stars Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr., Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Janelle Monáe, and country superstar Jennifer Nettles, trampled Edward Norton’s much-hyped drama Motherless Brooklyn and the animated Arctic Dogs, which also opened on Friday.
“Audiences have been unanimous for their love of this film, which is clear from its A+ CinemaScore and 98% Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes,” Focus distribution president Lisa Bunnell said in a statement today.
“With the story of one woman’s strength that literally [changed] the world we all live in today, it is the feel-great movie people are looking for—becoming an event for friends and families going to see together,” she added.
Leading into the great film about a great black woman’s release was some social media scuttlebutt regarding the film’s depiction of a character—played quite effectively by Queen Sugar’s Omar J. Dorsey—who was a big, black and ugly bounty hunter. (As if those types did not exist in our history, too. But I digress.)
In a review of the film, titled “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Harriet?” Shadow & Act critic (and 2019 Root 100 honoree) Brooke Obie wrote: “It’s also especially interesting that—in the hell that white supremacists built—the Big Bad of Harriet is a Black man.”
Adding to that, the Burlington County chapter of the NAACP canceled a screening of the film because of Byron Allen’s $20 billion civil rights lawsuit against Comcast, which is the parent company of Focus Features.
“At stake here is far bigger than Comcast or Mr. Allen,” Crystal D. Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP, said in a statement obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Our position regarding this case is based on irretrievable harm to black people and other marginalized communities.”
And then there’s the whole meshugas about Erivo—who is British and of Nigerian descent—portraying another major African-American role.
Previously, the Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winning powerhouse breathed new life into Alice Walker’s downtrodden Celie Johnson in the acclaimed Scott Sanders-produced revival of The Color Purple on Broadway.
Adding to that, the Widows star will take on the role of The Queen of Soul in a television series based on her life—just before former Color Purple co-star Jennifer Hudson tackles Aretha Franklin’s life in a big-picture biopic, Respect, due out next summer.
About the former, Erivo told New York Daily News reporter Jami Ganz that she doesn’t think the controversy is “unwarranted.”
“…People are allowed to feel how they feel,” the 32-year-old singer/actress said. “Harriet is a historical character in the history, and people love her. She’s a superhero—and I love her, too.”
Good to know that she gets it, despite some old social media commentary that continues to haunt her.
But like some say: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game!”
Erivo doesn’t have the power to greenlight films in Hollywood. At least not yet.
And there are no black people running major motion picture studios—even after all of this time. (But that’s a TOTAL other talk show topic for another time.)
One thing for sure; the pint-sized renaissance woman delivers the goods in the first movie about a real-life superhero.
And for those who like their narratives light and lively, Harriet is not the brutal, heavy slave porn that Hollywood seems to have had an insatiable appetite for over the years (Hello, Django).
Luckily, despite the controversies, the film—which was co-written and directed by Eve’s Bayou auteur Lemmons—has fared better than Nate Parker’s brilliant but viciously maligned masterpiece The Birth of A Nation.
“This is not a slave movie,” Martin Chase said in Sunday’s statement. “This is a movie that says we cannot control the circumstances into which we are born, but we can control what we do once we get here.”
Hats off to all involved with Harriet.
Hoping they can go the distance during the upcoming awards season.