- Golden Globe Awards
Nominee Profile 2020: Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”
British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo played abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the movie Harriet directed by Kasi Lemmons. She also wrote the original song Stand Up, and performed it over the end credits. The biopic starts with Minty as a slave in a Maryland plantation in 1849, asking for her freedom, so she may live with her husband; after her request is denied and she is about to be sold, she chooses to escape, managing to reach Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after walking alone in the wilderness for miles. There she connects with the Underground Railroad and goes back to the plantation several times, dressed as a man called Moses, to help her family and many more slaves escape.
Erivo told HFPA journalists that what most surprised her about Harriet was “her cunning and determination, her strength and bravery.” “She’s an icon in American culture,” but our film makes her “a rediscovery for the world.” She’s really inspirational for women in general to see, because “it shows us that we can pretty much achieve whatever we want to.” Having learned from Harriet’s example, she is not afraid of having tough conversations with people, of standing up for something she truly believes in. As for the contemporary relevance of this period movie, Erivo points out that there are families at the Mexican border being split and torn apart right now.
As a singer, Erivo wanted to find “a lower register” for the singing voice of Harriet, who often used the words of songs to communicate coded messages to the captive slaves she was helping escape. And when it came to writing the song Stand Up, she based it on the vocal harmony of the African spiritual, “trying to draw on the spirit of our ancestors.”
Erivo, 32, born in Southwest London to Nigerian immigrant parents, studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 2013 she played the role of Celie in the revival of The Color Purple, the 2005 musical based on the 1982 novel by Alice Walker and the 1985 movie by Steven Spielberg starring Whoopi Goldberg. When the London production moved to Broadway (2015-2017), Erivo won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In movies, she played a down-on-her-luck singer in the murder mystery Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) with Jeff Bridges, a hairdresser turned criminal in Widows (2018) by Steve McQueen with Viola Davis.
In 2018 she told the HFPA that she always knew, from the age of five, that she wanted to sing because it made people happy. “I was asked to sing Silent Night in a Nativity play, and I remember that, when I finished, people were clapping and smiling.” And even though she was raised in England, she has not lost touch with her family’s Nigerian culture. “I’m first-generation English, and the last time I went to Nigeria I was 13, but my mother has brought us up on the Nigerians customs and traditions, the clothes, the jewelry, the food, the language because we’re people that take pride in that. My mother (Edith) is a superwoman who’s made sure that her kids (Cynthia and younger sister Stephanie) both have an understanding of the Western world, but still keep a connection to her home and her upbringing.”
Erivo will next be seen in the science fiction film Chaos Walking (2020) by Doug Liman with Tom Holland, on television as Aretha Franklin in the series Genius. She names among her icons, along Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Patti Labelle.