Harsh reality takes center stage in Focus Features’ Harriet, the harrowing story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo), and Dark Waters, the tale of attorney Rob Bilott (portrayed by producer and star Mark Ruffalo) ,the Cincinnati lawyer who took on DuPont, which was dumping toxic materials into the water in a small West Virginia town.
Although the films focus on different periods in history, they are connected in defending human dignity against tragic exploitation by the powerful. At today’s The Contenders Los Angeles panels, the creative teams behind the films called their subjects the “superheroes” of their time.
The Harriet panel, moderated by Deadline’s Dominic Patten, included Erivo, writer-director Kasi Lemmons, producer Debra Martin Chase and composer Terence Blanchard. All three stressed the importance of the intensive research that made Harriett Tubman live again in their minds and on the screen.
Erivo, who also co-wrote and recording the film’s original song “Stand Up,” said “hopefully I brought all of me” to the highly physical role, adding with a laugh, “I am a glutton for punishment.” She added, “I felt like she was a superhero. To me, I felt it was important for the world to see her as a human being.” Lemmons said that when she met Erivo she thought Erivo embodied the real Tubman’s tiny but forceful persona.
Blanchard said he sought to reflect three elements of Tubman’s character in his music composition: her strength, her compassion, and her faith.
Panelists noted this is the first feature film to be made about Tubman, and Chase said it took 5½ years to bring the story to the screen. When she began the process, she said Hollywood was not ready to make a movie directed by African American woman, about an African American woman, particularly not a period piece. “The country caught up with us, the industry caught up with us,” she said. “It is the perfect time for the movie to come out.”
While the late Tubman could not be on the panel, the real Bilott could. He joined Ruffalo and director Todd Haynes onstage to talk about a battle he continues to wage against DuPont with moderator Pete Hammond.
Ruffalo called Bilott “my hero, a real life superhero.” He said the role fit in perfectly with his own commitment to social and environmental activism. “In 2016, with the complete divide of our nation, I wanted to find another way to communicate these ideas other than direct activism,” he said. Haynes also praised Bilott’s fight against DuPont, when “ the tools didn’t even exist to begin the fight, This is an unregulated chemical, it is still an unregulated chemical. It is in all of us.”
Said Bilott of the movie, “It will be a tremendous opportunity for people to see what happened in our country, in modern day times…. we are now dealing with a chemical that is all over the world, in everyone’s blood, it’s in polar bears, it is contamination on an unprecedented scale… this can be fixed, we shouldn’t live in a system that works this way.”