Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century statesman and adviser to President Lincoln, wrote a letter of endorsement when he learned the biography of his friend Harriet Tubman was near completion. “[Only] the midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism,” he stated with his trademark eloquence.
Thanks to a major motion picture from Focus Features, opening today in theaters, the sky will not be alone in knowing the suspenseful, inspirational life story of “Harriet.” Cynthia Erivo (“The Color Purple”) portrays Tubman, backed up by Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) as Underground Railroad legend William Still, among many others in the star-studded cast.
“This history, while terrifying and brutal, is also a tremendous adventure,” said director Kasi Lemmons in a phone interview. “I didn’t have to stretch to make this story interesting. She’s a real-life action hero.” Lemmons has crafted the rarest of biopics, a well-researched take on historic events that moves with edge-of-your-seat action as Tubman covertly liberates herself — and then returns South multiple times to lead 70 others to safety.
Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson served as historical consultant on the movie. “This film changes the landscape,” she said. “It’s a real, honest, raw Harriet Tubman brought to life by Cynthia Erivo — a radical, even militant freedom fighter and a brilliant, courageous woman.”
For the past two decades, Larson has helped pioneer the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The 126-mile network of roads, which tracks Tubman’s route to freedom, begins with a multimedia-rich Visitors Center in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she lived. Angela Crenshaw serves as assistant manager and spokesperson for the National Park Service site.
“Back in Tubman’s time, African American women were viewed as inconsequential,” said Crenshaw. “Most white men didn’t think [such women] would do anything that would influence them or the economy. Little did they know that Miss Harriet Tubman was stealing people from the Eastern Shore right under their noses.”
Getting the History Right
While marketing plays up “Harriet” as the first on-screen portrayal of Tubman, it’s not quite true. In 1978, a four-part TV event entitled “A Woman Called Moses” aired on NBC. “That miniseries is still shown in high schools today, which is surprising to me,” said Larson. “Cicely Tyson is beautiful and fantastic as the lead, but it’s not accurate at all.”
With four academic scholars involved, including one focused entirely on the film’s agricultural milieu, the team behind “Harriet” sought to ground the narrative firmly in historical scholarship. “Over seven months of research, I read everything I could get my hands on about Harriet,” said Lemmons, who co-wrote the script with “Remember the Titans” scribe Gregory Allen Howard. “I devoured every major biography, academic paper, and every scholarly work on the Underground Railroad.”
One of the writer/director’s first calls was to Larson, who authored “Bound for the Promised Land,” a landmark 2004 Tubman biography. “I went through a couple of drafts of the script with Kasi Lemmons, who changed a few things to make it historically accurate,” said Larson. “What is incredible is how she brought out the fierceness of Tubman, who was not going to stop until she freed her family and the people she loved.”
Filmed over several weeks last fall, entirely on location in Virginia, “Harriet” captures scenic northeastern landscapes — contrasted with the dangers of life for an African American woman escaping bondage. The director recalls that juxtaposition was felt keenly when filming one scene, in which Tubman was leading several others to freedom.
“It was this beautiful shot filmed at dusk, where the freedom-seekers are running,” said Lemmons. “Immediately after I say, ‘Cut!’ they ran through a hive of ground hornets, who rise up from the ground and fly underneath their costumes. The hornets rebound and attack the crew. Everybody got stung, and a couple people went to the hospital, which was kind of brutal.”
When such challenges arose, invariably the cast and crew considered what enslaved black Americans went through — running for their lives in the woods at night.
“These environments were hostile in so many ways for a person who may or may not have had shoes on, or warm clothing, or a place to sleep,” said Lemmons. “They had to really hide themselves in bushes and marshes. It’s incredible what they were able to do to survive.”
Woman On the Run
Upon reaching freedom in Philadelphia in 1849, Tubman yearns for her husband and family and plans to venture back among slaveowners to rescue them. “She was a great chameleon in how she used disguises,” said Larson. “She dressed as a man and as an old woman, even though she was in her 30s during the Underground Railroad.”
The film director sought to portray how Tubman, facing one desperate situation after another, kept her cool. “She was able to outfox, outrun, and deceive people — and the means by which she did it is all very interesting,” said Lemmons. “For instance, they hid in secret compartments of carts. They sometimes hid in the water. It was very much part of the story of runaway slaves.”
Her narrative also touches on little-known aspects of slavery. “Harriet” presents two black freedmen as seeking the bounty on Tubman’s head. “Often their owners would press black men into slave catching, which became financially lucrative,” said Crenshaw of the National Park Service. “No one would see them coming. Enslaved people would trust them because they figured, same skin tone means there’s a relation. But not all your skin folk are your kinfolk.”
It was not the only betrayal Tubman experienced. Upon arriving at the Maryland plantation she used to call home, it shocks her to find her husband has remarried. “It’s true, authentic, and important to grounding her in reality,” said Lemmons. “She suffered heartbreak and loss and felt terrible pain, but was somehow able to use that to steel her will and make her stronger.”
Historian Larson notes no other stage or screen adaptation has aptly captured this dynamic of Tubman’s loving marriage destroyed by slavery. Indeed, other aspects distinguish “Harriet” from all manner of Civil War-era dramas.
“This film has controversial elements on a lot of different levels,” said Lemmons. “Presenting her as an action hero is controversial. Certainly the visions and how we [portrayed] her faith as integral — I expect there will be lots of talk about it.”
Two Sides of Faith
From its opening scenes of an outdoor black church service (held under the watchful eyes of slaveowners), to its final line echoing the words of Christ, “Harriet” emphasizes religion as foundational to Tubman’s story. This focus echoes Larson’s 432-page tome on Tubman.
“As a historian, it’s hard to be objective about faith because it’s very personal,” said Larson. “Since I could not interview Tubman for the biography, I can just go on the words she spoke about her faith and how it guided her. It preserved her. It protected her. It soothed her. It was a source of strength and mystery — and truly defines her.”
Yet the film does not shy away from how those in power also used the Bible. “Her master said, ‘When you read about obeying the Lord, think of me as your lord,’” said Crenshaw. “It kind of tainted religion a little bit. Yet she always carried her Bible and hymnal for most of her life.”
Her hymnal, today on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., serves as a testament to resilient faith. “Certainly white enslavers and the white Christian power structure in the South used passages from the Bible,” said Larson. “But enslaved people were smart enough to know that that’s ridiculous. They had their own interpretations of Scripture.”
The film reveals chapters from her life some viewers may doubt. Scenes show Tubman at night kneeling in prayer — and, moments later, navigating her charges through the forest to evade capture. It’s as if she had received supernatural guidance.
“Tubman was so certain that this is what had happened to her,” said Lemmons. “It’s absolutely the way she presents her story, without faltering. I went through a process with it and ultimately decided I was going to take her word for it and take her point of view.”
Surprisingly, Civil War history buffs back up this creative choice. “She was guided by an internal spirit and never ventured anywhere except where God told her,” said Crenshaw of the National Park Service. “She would describe being out in the woods by herself when she was seeking her freedom, saying she felt a presence with her all of the time.”
Larson notes a traumatic head wound Tubman suffered as a child at the hands of an irate slaveowner led to her likely suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy. It would explain aspects of the seizure-like visions, though not the reliably successful outcomes of her journeys.
“It’s very curious because accounts suggest she did have these premonitions,” said Larson. “There’s no doubt about her visions and aural hallucinations — I’m going to use those terms, because I don’t know what else to call them. Her faith was so profound that, in her world, that’s what was guiding her. She embraced it as God and whatever spiritual realm is out there.”
Tubman’s struggles to escape ruthless racism and free others has particular resonance in communities of color, the American icons of which have rarely received big-budget biopics. “Harriet Tubman deserves to be celebrated as a hero,” said Lemmons. “This black woman is one of the most incredible people who has ever lived.”
The role could prove history-making for lead actress Cynthia Erivo, who co-wrote “Stand Up,” which she sings over the credits. If the track ends up winning an Oscar, she will become the youngest EGOT winner and only the third African American artist to be recognized with Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.
What Tubman achieved is worthy of remembrance by all, as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center emphasizes. The team hosts tour groups from across the U.S. and dozens of nations. “Here at the center, I hire dark-skinned people, light-skinned people, whomever is qualified,” said Crenshaw. “Because, to me, the Underground Railroad was everyone working together for one common goal — and that’s what we do here as well.”
Larson never exhausts her desire for retelling stories of “the greatest freedom fighter of all time,” as she calls Tubman. The biographer asserts her life has a timely message for today.
“No matter your political persuasion, Americans hold dearly to her core values of family, freedom, faith, community, equality, justice, and self-determination,” she said. “This film brings us all back to think about this little 5-foot-tall woman, illiterate in reading or writing, who did so much.”
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, violence, and some language (including racial epithets), “Harriet” is now playing in theaters nationwide.