Photo Caption: Cynthia Erivo as Harriet | Still credit: Focus Features
Empower Magazine recently spoke with actress Vanessa Bell Calloway on her role in the new Focus Features’ film Harriet which released in theaters today. Calloway (known for Coming to America, What’s Love Got to Do With It and Saints & Sinners) plays the role of Rit Ross, the mother of Harriet Tubman, and shares her thoughts on the resilience and tenacity of Tubman, and her pride in being a part of a film that pays tribute to the life of the iconic freedom fighter.
The film, the first biopic on the inspirational life of Harriet Tubman, tells the extraordinary story of Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history. Harriet is written by Gregory Allen Howard (“Ali”, “Remember the Titans”) and Kasi Lemmons, directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”, “Talk to Me”), produced by Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard and brought to life by Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and cast members, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and more.
Prior to working on this film as Harriet Tubman’s mother, Rit Ross, what knowledge did you have of her mother?
I had no knowledge of Harriet’s mother. My studies as a child in school were all about Harriet Tubman. I was surprised to learn that Harriet’s first name was ‘Araminta’ and that she went with the name ‘Harriet’ after her mother. It wasn’t until I read the script that I got information about her mother and then I read the book and learned more about her. Ross was her husband’s last name.
Did you channel any maternal figures in your own life for this role?
Yes, me. I am a mother of two beautiful daughters and I understand about the fierce love that a mother has, and I understand what it means to be a Black woman, and I understand what happened in the Civil Rights Era because I was a child and have indelible imprints in my mind of watching the nightly news as the police attacked Black people down South; the dogs and the water hoses. I’ve been discriminated against and I have been called the “N” word, so when you take all of that and put it together, yes, I had somebody that I looked at and used – me and my own personal life. It wasn’t really difficult to embody what it would feel like for Rit to have her children ripped from her as we learn at the beginning of the movie. And it is not hard to envision the pain she felt being an enslaved Black woman in that era and then your babies are taken away from you. For a woman that is the cruelest thing you can do to a loving mother, to harm or take her children. That is all we have as an extension of who we are and we pour everything into our children, so it wasn’t difficult at all to embody Rit.
In today’s society, African Americans work twice as hard to get half as far. Decades after Harriet’s work in the Underground Railroad, what was the most challenging part of filming a period piece about slavery and African American history?
I won’t say challenging, but what was different when you are working on a plantation and you are doing a movie on an iconic person like Harriet Tubman and you are in an era that you didn’t live in – you feel something. I felt the ancestors literally surrounding us; you felt something special happening. Just putting on the costumes that are very heavy – the corsets and all of that stuff, the old shoes and the ratty tatty clothes, no make-up, your hair. The great part of the job is you just woke up and went to work, you didn’t have to be in hair and make-up for hours like other movies.
Just filming those elements, it made you feel other things. I won’t say that it was difficult or bad, it was just like you say, ‘Wow, this is what it must of felt like.’ The hard part, I guess you can say, is when you are doing scenes and you hear language that was used to you that was used to your ancestors although these actors are acting just like you, but the language is a reminder that we really did go through this, we really did have to live like this; we were enslaved and it wasn’t fair. But these stories have to be told because we can never forget.
Talk about working with Cynthia Erivo as Harriet’s mother. What was the most memorable scene together?
My favorite scene is when she comes and I think she is the angel of death coming to take me. I don’t recognize it because by that time [my character] Rit has kind of lost it by then because of all of her suffering. She is kind of like no use to anybody because she is just not present in her life in the moment anymore. My other favorite moment is when Rit is just asking [Harriet] to tell her about the new world that her daughter is getting ready to take her to and the way Harriet explains it about the house and stuff – it was just a beautiful moment to me personally, and I think in the film.
Janelle Monae’s portrayal as a born-free slave who helped Harriet in her journey is dynamic! What did you make of her performance and did you ladies get to interact on set?
No, because when you shoot a film everyone shoots their part and when they had to go to Philadelphia for those scenes, my character never made it to that part in the story and in real life, so that is why you don’t see Rit. Harriet didn’t come back until after that to free her mother and her father.
Who are the women you credit in helping you along your journey as an actress?
I give my mother credit because she is the one that drove me to my dance classes when I was young. I admire people like Diahann Carroll, God rest her soul, who I had the pleasure of working with. She told me the great stories when we worked together of how it was to work in those times. I have a lot of colleagues that I think are fabulous, like Alfre Woodard, who is a personal friend, and I think she is fabulous. I think that all of the Black actresses today who are working, we all are doing a great job, we are representing Black women well, Viola, Angela Bassett, myself. I think that we all are doing a great job and I think in a sense we pull from each other just because we see each other on the screen and out at parties and we support each other, because that is the right thing to do.
As an actress in today’s political climate, how do you hope the film EMPOWERS future generations?
I don’t protest and do things like that, but I have my own thoughts about political situations. I think this film is going to do a lot of things. I think it is going to remind us from whence we came, as I said before because we can’t forget. When I was in D.C. for the opening of the film, my husband and I were very fortunate to get a private tour of the African American Museum before it opened the day of our premiere and party there. We had our own private docent and it was a wonderful experience and she was very knowledgeable and a really wonderful woman. In our tour she shared with us that she had some people, some people of other colors, but primarily white folks, who don’t believe our history and challenged her and said that it was a farce and that some of it is made up – because they didn’t see it, they don’t know about it, and they grew up with a different narrative so that is what they choose to believe.
So that is why I say, it is so important, when you asked me what I think people need to take [from this film] -they need to take that this is true, this happened. How the story is told may take a little license here and there, but we know for a fact Harriet Tubman existed, we know for a fact that she freed over 70 something slaves and didn’t lose a one, we know for a fact about the work and the sacrifice and tenacity that this woman had and the commitment that she showed. With that being said, I hope that people take away from the film, that you can do what you want. There are a lot of people that are still enslaved in their minds. They haven’t reached the goals or the things that they want, but hopefully, if they see somebody like Harriet Tubman, who had far less than they could ever imagine (we think we don’t have nothing, think about what those people had in the 1840s, 1850s – they had nothing.) And if she can take that nothing and make something, then hopefully people will be inspired when they see this movie, and encouraged that they can do whatever they want to do. And that they deserve freedom – whatever that means to them – and that they have rights and that they should proceed and claim what is there’s. I hope people walk away from this film very celebratory and inspired and victorious because after watching what Harriet did, it is like I always tell people, I am a 10-year cancer survivor, but I always say, I have cancer, it doesn’t have me – so it is kind of like, you can have a situation, don’t let the situation have you because we can always come out of it victorious.
Harriet’s character, also known as abolitionist Moses, experienced premonitions from God on her journey to free enslaved people. In what ways do you think faith and religion continue to help propel us forward as a society?
First of all, people need to listen to that inner voice, like Harriet did, because when you listen to that voice, that is how you are propelled into the truth and into faith and into the realism of what can happen. I believe it is already written, you just have to show up. So in our lives, things are already decided, what is going to be for us, it is already written, we just have to show up. But you have got to listen, you have got to put out the noise around you and go inside and listen to that voice. I call it the voice of God, some people call it premonitions – call it what you may, but you have got to learn to listen. And I think when we do that, it propels us into whatever our world is supposed to be, because, like I said, it is already written.
Describe the emotion you hope audiences feel after watching this adaptation of Harriet Tubman’s story in theaters?
I want them to feel empowered, I want people to feel victorious, I want people to walk away from this film and feel that they can do whatever they have their mind set on because after watching Harriet, who has far less than we have today, make these great strides, it should be nothing for us to go deep within ourselves and be determined and to take whatever we have individually and make more it. We hear stories about people being homeless, like a Tyler Perry, who slept out in his car, now look at what he has. He had tenacity, he had a vision, like Harriet Tubman did, those things are free, they don’t cost you anything, you just have to believe in God and then do the work to make it happen.
One last question, describe what it meant to you to work on this film?
Personally, it meant a lot to me. I wanted to work with Debra Martin Chase, I wanted to work with Kasi Lemmons and I was thrilled to work with Cynthia Erivo and the rest of the cast and when I read the part I knew that I needed to be a part of this film – so it meant a lot to me to be able to play Rit. And whatever was called of me to do, even before the movie, during the movie and even after the movie, I am just so proud to be a part of this – I’m honored, I’m grateful.