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The True Story Behind the Harriet Tubman Movie

“Harriet,” a new film starring Cynthia Erivo, is the first feature film dedicated solely to the American icon

Harriet Tubman’s first act as a free woman was poignantly simple. As she later told biographer Sarah Bradford, after crossing the Pennsylvania state boundary line in September 1849, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

The future Underground Railroad conductor’s next thoughts were of her family. “I was free,” she recalled, “but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there.”Review: ‘Mi America,’ on the Murder of Migrant Laborers in a Small Town

Tubman dedicated the next decade of her life—a period chronicled in Harriet, a new biopic starring Cynthia Erivo as its eponymous heroine—to rescuing her family from bondage. Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to Maryland some 13 times, helping around 70 people—including four of her brothers, her parents and a niece—escape slavery and embark on new lives. Of her immediate family members still enslaved in the southern state, Tubman ultimately rescued all but one—Rachel Ross, who died shortly before her older sister arrived to bring her to freedom. This failure, says Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), was a source of “lingering heartbreak” for Tubman. The abortive attempt, undertaken in late 1860, marked her last rescue mission on the Underground Railroad.

Despite the fact that she looms large in the public imagination, Tubman has rarely received the level of scholarly attention afforded to similarly iconic Americans. Catherine Clinton, author of the 2004 biography Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, tells the New York Times she has even encountered people “who were not sure if [Tubman] was even a real person, or if she was a figure from folklore, like Johnny Appleseed.”

Director Kasi Lemmons says the new movie, which opens in theaters November 1 and is the first feature film dedicated solely to Tubman, aims to present a well-rounded portrait of the oft-mythologized figure, revealing “her courage and her womanhood so that [viewers] feel like you’ve actually spent time with this beautiful person.”

Lemmons adds, “I want you to feel like you had lunch with her.”

Previously, the abolitionist, suffragist and activist was immortalized mainly through children’s books and cameo appearances in dramas centered on other Civil War era figures. Her life has been reduced to broad strokes—escaped from slavery, helped others do the same, advocated for underrepresented groups’ rights—and her individual character overlooked in favor of portraying an idealized superhuman. What’s missing, says Elliott, who co-curated NMAAHC’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition, is a sense of Tubman’s humanity: in other words, who she was “as a woman.”

Born Araminta “Minty” Ross between 1820 and 1825, the future Harriet Tubman came of age in antebellum Dorchester County. Headstrong even as an adolescent, she defied orders and was soon relegated from domestic work to more punishing labor in the fields. This familiarity with the land would prove helpful down the line, according to Beverly Lowry’s Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life, providing a “steady schooling” in nature that proved much more advantageous than the “dead-end day-in-day-out tedium of domestic work.”

When Tubman was around 13 years old, she sustained a life-changing—and nearly life-ending—injury. Caught in a violent disagreement between another enslaved individual and his overseer, the young girl inadvertently bore the brunt of the latter’s anger: Although he had flung a two-pound lead weight across the room in hopes of stopping the male, the overseer missed his target and delivered a “stunning blow” to Tubman’s head.

Three days later, she was back in the fields. The wound eventually healed, or at least as much as can be expected without adequate medical treatment, but Araminta herself was forever changed. As Lowry notes, the teenager “began having visions and speaking with God on a daily basis, as directly and as pragmatically as if he were a guardian uncle whispering instructions exclusively to her.” Later in life, those who met her spoke of how she would fall asleep in the middle of conversations, dozing off before continuing as if nothing had happened.

The True Story Behind the Harriet Tubman Movie

This recently recovered 1868-1869 portrait, depicting Tubman probably in her early 40s, is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. NMAAHC, Library of Congress

The True Story Behind the Harriet Tubman Movie

Absent from the film is Tubman’s work as a Union spy, her 1869 marriage, her work as a suffragist (above: pictured between 1871 and 1876) and the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly. NMAAHC, Library of Congress

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