Think of Harriet Tubman and you’re likely to picture an old woman in a kerchief, seated and somber, a mental image drawn from the handful of formal photos taken near the end of the abolitionist’s remarkably (and in many ways, inexplicably) long life. So it’s something of a jolt to see her in the new drama “Harriet,” in which she is both young (in her late 20s when the film opens) and active (leaping off bridges, facing down slave owners, charging through woods with hunting dogs at her heels).
Perhaps most jarring, this Tubman is armed and ready to start blasting, something you certainly don’t see in all those children’s books about her. “Those books defanged her, declawed her, to make her more palatable,” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s director, said. “Because there’s something quite terrifying about the image of a black woman with a rifle.”
Few figures in American history have been as shrouded in myth and misperceptions as Harriet Tubman. Biographers have made up figures about her, from the number of enslaved people she rescued to the bounty on her head, while others have misquoted her, including Hillary Clinton and Kanye West. One of her earliest biographies is filled with inaccuracies and racist language, while a cottage industry of children’s books paints a picture of her that’s often more fable than flesh and blood.
When the author and historian Catherine Clinton was writing the biography “Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom” (2004), she said, “I encountered people who were not sure if she was even a real person, or if she was a figure from folklore, like Johnny Appleseed.”
So what happens when Hollywood, an industry not known for factual fastidiousness, gets its hands on Tubman’s story?
In “Harriet,” which opens Nov. 1, the filmmakers have fashioned a lead character (played by Cynthia Erivo) far removed from her staid public image, equal parts embattled heroine and action star.
The filmmakers pored over numerous biographies and firsthand accounts to separate fact from fiction, creating a two-hour narrative from a nine-decades-long life that included two marriages, encounters with Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and stints as a suffragist and Union spy. Tubman, who died in 1913, was also the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War.
Incredibly, despite all the biographies and monuments, operas and museum exhibitions and commemorative stamps, “Harriet” is the first feature film to focus solely on the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor. The filmmakers had to wait, and wait, for the industry to get as excited about the project as they were. “‘Hidden Figures’ was a real breakthrough in that regard,” one of the producers, Debra Martin Chase, said, referring to the 2016 based-on-real-life tale of black women at NASA. “Because Hollywood was not making movies about black women, period, much less historical pieces about them.”
Among the sources that the filmmakers consulted was the first biography about Tubman, “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” (1869), a problematic book by Sarah Hopkins Bradford that included several inaccuracies (the number and nature of her rescues, for example) and set the stage for inaccurate accounts to come. Bradford, who was white, interviewed Tubman, but “she was used to writing about Peter the Great, Columbus, these great white men,” Kate Clifford Larson, author of the Tubman biography “Bound for the Promised Land” and an adviser on the film, said. “So when she listened to Tubman, she just didn’t pay attention. And she also had her own racist views about black people, so the language she used in the biography was offensive.”
Among the oft-repeated myths about Tubman: that there was a $40,000 bounty on her head, a preposterously high figure at a time when the reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth was $50,000. “If it were that high, she would have been caught,” Larson said. In the film, we see posters citing a more reasonable $200 or $300.
And then there’s the number of enslaved people she rescued through the Underground Railroad, which was reported as 300 in her 1869 biography, but was more likely around 70. “Her story was a hard sell at the time, so they embellished things to try to sell it,” Lemmons said. The film’s epilogue goes with the more accurate estimate, while adding that as part of a relatively large military operation, she also freed more than 750 slaves during her time with the Union Army during the Civil War.
In the film, we see Tubman leading hundreds of black troops, leveling a rifle at her Confederate enemies as plantations burn in the background. “I don’t think we necessarily think of historical female figures as Joan of Arcs, particularly in children’s books, but that’s exactly what she was,” the producer Daniela Lundberg said.
Lemmons added, “You don’t have an image of what she was like when she was actually doing this work in her late 20s, when she was this young superheroine, this completely badass woman.”
As for those guns, Tubman carried a pistol during her time with the Underground Railroad (to protect herself and her charges against slave hunters and, on at least on one occasion, as seen in the film, to encourage those under her to stay the course). During the Civil War, she wielded a sharpshooter’s rifle.
The filmmakers included several lesser-known episodes from Tubman’s life, including one that opens the film, in which a young Tubman hires a white lawyer to examine the will of her mother’s former master, only to discover that her mother, and hence herself, were legally free. They also endeavored to get Tubman’s words right, particularly given how often she’s been misquoted. In 2018, Kanye West attributed a made-up quote to her in a since-deleted tweet — “I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves” — not long after describing slavery as “a choice” on a “TMZ Live” appearance. “That shocks me,” Larson said. “Anyone who was enslaved knew they were enslaved, and if they could have run away, they would have. It’s an insult.”
Even so, there were things the filmmakers had to fudge in the interests of a cohesive narrative. Timelines were conflated (the Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was passed within months after Tubman’s escape, not after she had already become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, as in the film) and characters were created. Gideon, the young slave owner and childhood companion of Tubman, for example, was a fiction, a stand-in for hundreds of men and women who grew up alongside the people enslaved by their parents.
“For me, of course, as a historian, I wish it was completely, totally accurate,” Larson said. “But it’s Hollywood. And they got Tubman. Kasi Lemmons really got her, and made her this militant radical, while also conveying her love for her family. And that’s who Tubman was.”
Lemmons said that by now, “I know a whole lot about the story, so when I conflated, embellished, created or used poetic license, I certainly knew exactly what I was doing.” Still, she said: “I did want to present as much of it as accurately as possible. The story is so incredible that it sounds as if it’s not accurate, but it is.”