98. Cynthia Erivo: Building Bridges to Africa’s Diaspora

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 03 March 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: Focus Features, 2019

Nigerian-British actress and singer, Cynthia Onyedinmanasu Chinasaokwu Erivo, was the only black artist nominated for an Oscar in the recent Academy Awards in Hollywood for her role in Harriet which has grossed over $41.7 million at the box office. With her bleached white hair, ear piercings, large round rings, and long, colourful fingernails, Erivo is unmissable. She was nominated for Best Actress and Best Original song, but lost in both categories to the outstanding, Rene Zellweger, and the veteran, Elton John. Clad in a golden gown, her powerful rendition of “Stand Up” at the Oscars ceremony won her plaudits across Tinseltown.  At just 33, Erivo has already won prestigious Tony, Emmy, and Grammy awards, and seems destined for greatness.

Reinforcing the five-year criticisms of the #Oscars So White hashtag, the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees was widely condemned, including by an outspoken Erivo who could more conveniently have kept quiet to avoid stoking controversy. Black films like Queen and Slim and Just Mercy were overlooked. However, the Best Film and Best Director victories of South Korean film, Parasite (which has grossed $44 million in the US), added welcome diversity to the winners.

The Oscars have been castigated for nominating just 14 black women out of 100 for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories over the last decade. The continuing criticism is that black female nominees are often typecast in subservient roles: Hattie McDaniel’s slave in Gone with The Wind; Whoopi Golberg’s hustler psychic in Ghost; Halle Berry’s betrayer-wife in Monster’s Ball;   Octavia Spencer’s housemaid in The Help; and Viola Davis’s long-suffering wife in Fences.

The 2019 biopic, Harriet, for which Erivo was nominated, told the story of the African-American abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery in the American South, but escaped in 1849 by walking 100 miles from Maryland to Pennsylvania. She then joined the Anti-Slavery Society to become a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad: an intricate network used by escaping slaves. She returned 19 times to the pre-bellum American South to free at least 70 slaves. In the process, Harriet had to evade dangerous obstacles largely involving slave-catchers, earning herself the sobriquet “Moses.” Like the biblical figure, she figuratively parted the Red Sea, before using the Celestial North Star to guide freed slaves to the Promised Land. During the American civil war (1861-1865), Tubman became the first woman commander, leading an all-black battalion to free over 700 slaves in South Carolina. The pioneering activist also campaigned for women’s rights as part of the suffragettes. She was thus an early feminist and civil rights campaigner, even before these terms were ever used. Tubman died at the age of 91 in 1913.

Harriet – shot in rainy, rural Virginia – is a fast-moving thriller with a lyrical musical score and a cinematography that is, at times, breath-taking: golden sunsets, lush landscapes, dense forests, and bright stars. In this era of The Black Panther, Tubman is a 19th century superhero, with her magical powers being the divine visions of the past and future that help guide her during her many escapades. A pistol-wielding Harriet defiantly proclaims “liberty or death”, and sings soaring Negro spirituals to lift the spirits of her fellow plantation workers. Without ignoring the trauma of the evil system of slavery, the film’s African-American director, Kasi Lemmons (who directed the delightful 2013 musical, Black Nativity), avoids the graphic depiction of Caribbean-British director, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning  12 Years A Slave, whose slow, lingering pace perfectly captured the tedium and hopelessness of Southern plantation life. Harriet, in contrast, is fast-paced and action-packed.  Even amidst the hopelessness of plantation slavery, black agency and heroism are on full display.

Erivo’s lead performance has been widely praised, even by critics of the movie who nevertheless felt that her sparkling performance carried the film. A.O. Scott described her role as a “precise and passionate performance;” Roxana Hadadi noted that she “effectively conveys a woman in constant forward motion;” while Tomris Laffly observed that “Erivo’s performance might very well become a definitive one, synonymous with Tubman.”   Like Harriet, Erivo stands at just 5-foot tall. She perfectly personified Tubman’s resourcefulness, courage, and indomitable spirit, capturing well her transformation from a slave girl into a fearless leader of a liberation movement. As Erivo noted about Harriet: “She was a human being with the full scope of emotions: sadness, love, happiness, all of that. We wanted to make sure people knew that of her.” Erivo became totally immersed in the role, praying each time before going on the set, and feeling a spiritual connection to her protagonist: “I feel as if Harriet is complicit in the storytelling. I feel that she’s around. It’s comforting to be able to reach into your faith to tell the story of somebody who has faith.”

It is hard to believe that Harriet is only Erivo’s third feature film after Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale (both released in 2018). She grew up in south London with a Nigerian immigrant mother who worked as a nurse, with her father largely absent from their lives. She attended Catholic school and started studying music psychology at the University of East London, before graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Erivo directly faced insidious British racism, and saw her mother racially abused. Like Tubman, she maintained a steely determination to succeed against difficult odds. It is perhaps noteworthy that she now lives permanently in New York, and achieved greater success in America than in Britain. Also significant was that she was nominated for an Oscar for Harriet, but not for a British Academy Film Award. Her powerful protest was to turn down the request to perform at the award ceremony in London, noting that the institution did not “represent people of colour in the right light,” and refusing to be tokenised by her country of birth. Erivo’s strong black identity has been important to her artistic choices: she has played leading roles in stage productions of Sister Act and The Colour Purple in the West End and on Broadway. She will be playing African-American soul idol, Aretha Franklin, in a forthcoming series. The versatile Thespian has also performed Shakespearean plays.

Despite Erivo’s desire to build bridges with the American diaspora, tensions still continue. She was widely criticised for a clumsy tweet about a “ghetto American accent.” Several African-American artists and reviewers also continue to condemn the casting of non-African-Americans such as Erivo,  Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o, and Nigerian-Britons Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carmen Ejogo, and David Oyelowo in lead roles in such movies as the 2013 12 Years a Slave and the 2014 Selma.

Erivo, however, remains deeply conscious of films like Harriet helping to shed light on contemporary injustices such as the separation of Latin American immigrant families seeking to enter the US, and British citizens of Caribbean descent of the Windrush generation being forcibly deported to countries that many of them have never visited. As she wistfully cautioned: “Hopefully, the film will serve as a reminder that if we don’t do the work we’re supposed to do, we’re going backwards.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.