Renée Graham

Who has the right to play Harriet Tubman?

Cynthia Erivo at a press conference in Toronto on Sept. 9.
Cynthia Erivo at a press conference in Toronto on Sept. 9.Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press/AP

Cynthia Erivo is an award-winning actress and singer. She’s just an Academy Award shy of joining an elite EGOT club — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony — that includes Rita Moreno, Whoopi Goldberg and, most recently, John Legend and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

What she isn’t is African-American. That’s why some think she’s the wrong choice to play Harriet Tubman in an upcoming film biography.

No, this isn’t the latest case of Hollywood “whitewashing,” akin to when Scarlett Johansson starred in the live-action version of the Japanese anime classic “Ghost in the Shell.” Like Tubman, Erivo is black; unlike Tubman, she’s also British. Still, should that disqualify her from playing an iconic African-American heroine?

Some say yes. “Another Brit playing a black American historical figure. This has to stop,” went a typical response. “It’s beyond disrespectful to black Americans to have others telling our stories.” Another vented: “How HARD is it to cast an African AMERICAN actress for Harriet?! No disrespect to the beautiful BRITISH Cynthia Erivo, but it is OUR history?!”


I find this debate both fascinating and frustrating. After so much ignorance and racism, we know it matters who gets to convey African-American history and stories. And what seems like Hollywood’s open door to black British actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) David Oyelowo (“Selma”), and Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) also poses questions about a possible industry bias toward performers who, while black, may be considered more acceptable to white audiences.

Still, I can’t shake the sense that this is a family fight pushed into daylight, a counter-productive squabble about acceptable blackness versus celebrating black excellence, whichever side of the Atlantic it comes from. And it distracts from industry types answering why there aren’t enough roles of consequence for black actors.

Even in an era of blockbusters like “Black Panther” and the much-anticipated “If Beale Street Could Talk,” filmmaker Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” there’s a scarcity of leading and major supporting roles for black actors that can define careers.


Long locked out of the best roles, some African-American actors may resent having to compete with their across-the-pond counterparts. Others, like Samuel L. Jackson, believe black British actors lack the personal history of African-Americans whose experience can add nuance to a performance.

Commenting last year on Kaluuya’s breakout role in “Get Out,” (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” reimagined as a horror film) Jackson said, “What would a brother from America have made of that role?” Some things are universal, Jackson said, but not everything.

What Kaluuya made of that role earned him an Academy Award nomination.“I resent that I have to prove that I’m black,” he said in response to Jackson.

Somehow, few seem perturbed when African-Americans, such as Don Cheadle in “Hotel Rwanda,” Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus” play Africans (all with the same generic “African” accent). None has been accused of usurping roles better suited to African actors.

White British actors regularly star as Americans in Hollywood films, and there are few complaints because there are so many roles available to white actors. For black actors here or in Britain, that’s not the case — which amplifies both the competitiveness and resentment when a plum role like Tubman does not go to an African-American.

Sadly, that anger also misses the fact that African-American directors like Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, and Kasi Lemmons helm films like “Selma,” “Get Out,” and “Harriet,” respectively. I find it impossible to believe they’re doing anything beyond finding actors, whether American or British, they believe are best suited for a particular role.


In an Instagram post, Erivo — who made her name starring as Celie in the Broadway adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” — entered the fray to address the controversy around the Tubman movie. “I fought for the role of Celie, and spilled blood sweat and tears playing her, the same applies for every role I’ve earned; this will be no different,” she wrote.

We’re in the midst of a glorious black creative renaissance in television and film that shows no sign of abatement. From Donald Glover to Dee Rees, there’s a tsunami of talent and ideas proving that audiences want to see challenging stories told from diverse viewpoints in front of and behind the camera. Far more important than the national origin of black actors is whether they have opportunities to create and share stories that once would have gone untold.

Besides, the casting for “Harriet” could have been far worse. At least Tubman won’t be played by Scarlett Johansson.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.