The true story behind the Harriet Tubman movie
Harriet Tubman's first act as a free woman was 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."
Tubman dedicated the next decade of her life-a period chronicled in Harriet-to rescuing her family from bondage. Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to Maryland some 13 times, helping around 70 people 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.
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.
Director Kasi Lemmons says the movie is the first feature film dedicated solely to Tubman and aims to present a well-rounded portrait of the oft-mythologized figure.
Previously, Tubman 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 and her individual character overlooked in favor of portraying an idealized superhuman.
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.
A defining moment in Tubman's pre-escape life was the sale of three of her sisters to unknown slaveholders in the Deep South. Once the sisters-Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty-were sold, their family members never heard from them again.
Tubman's decision to run stemmed in large part from a fear of sharing her sisters' fate. Although she had successfully commissioned a lawyer to comb through an old will and prove that her mother, Harriet "Rit" Ross, should have been freed upon reaching age 45, Rit's current owner, Edward Brodess, had opted to ignore his grandfather's wishes. Rather than freeing Rit, who was now some 15 years past the stated deadline, Brodess illegally kept her-and by extension her children-in bondage.
On March 1, 1849, Tubman heard a rumor suggesting Brodess was preparing to sell her and multiple siblings to slaveholders in the Deep South.
One week later, Brodess died, leaving Rit and her children at the mercy of his widow, Eliza. Faced with an increasingly uncertain future, Tubman prepared to flee.
By this point, she had married a free man named John and was perhaps considering starting a family of her own. Relationships between free and enslaved individuals were not uncommon, but as evidenced by a scene in the film in which Tubman's owner warns John to stay away from his property, constraints imposed by slaveholders rendered such relationships tenuous at best.
In mid-September, Tubman convinced several of her brothers to join an escape attempt. Before making much progress, however, the brothers decided to turn back, fearful of the dangers awaiting them. Their sister, it seemed, would have to make the journey alone.
Guided by the North Star and aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled north to Philadelphia.
Following Tubman's successful escape, the film shifts focus to its subject's rescue missions, exploring such threads as her attempts to reunite the Ross family in freedom, the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act's passage in 1850 and the Underground Railroad's little-known network of black maritime workers.
Tubman is often portrayed as a benign, grandmotherly "Moses" figure. The fact that she was a young woman when she escaped bondage is overlooked, as is a sense of her fierce militant nature. According Kate Clifford Larson's Bound for the Promised Land, Tubman carried a pistol during rescue missions, "telling her charges to go on or die, for a dead fugitive slave could tell no tales." But this aspect of the trips is rarely highlighted, particularly in the children's books where Tubman is most often placed front and center.
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, just months after Tubman's final rescue mission in late 1860. The film speeds through this period, pausing briefly in June 1863 to reference the Combahee River Raid-a military expedition that freed around 750 enslaved people and was the first of its kind to be led by a woman-but focusing largely on the decade between its heroine's escape and the end of her Underground Railroad days.
Tubman died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913, around the age of 90. Given the constraints imposed by its 10-year timeline and two-hour runtime, the movie does not address the bulk of this long life, instead opting to retrace the most well-known sequence of events. Among the chapters missing from the film: Tubman's time as a Union spy, her 1869 marriage to Nelson Davis-a soldier some 20 years her junior-and the couple's 1874 adoption of a baby girl named Gertie, her work as a suffragist, neurosurgery undertaken to address her decades-old brain injury, financial hardship later in life, and the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly in 1908.
Ultimately, Elliott says, "I hope that viewers seek more information on those different aspects of slavery and freedom," from marriage between enslaved and free people to the terrifying reality of leaving one's home and living among people who were born free.