The true story behind the Harriet Tubman movie
Harriet Tubman's first act as a free woman was simple. She crossed the Pennsylvania state boundary line in September 1849. Afterwards she talked to biographer Sarah Bradford. She said, "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 to rescuing her family from bondage. This period is chronicled in Harriet. She returned to Maryland some 13 times between 1850 and 1860. She helped around 70 people escape slavery and embark on new lives. The rescues included her immediate family members still enslaved in the southern state. Tubman ultimately rescued all but one. Her sister Rachel Ross died shortly before her older sister arrived to bring her to freedom. Mary N. Elliott is curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). She said this failure was a source of "lingering heartbreak" for Tubman.
Tubman looms large in the public imagination. But she has rarely received the level of scholarly attention given to similarly iconic Americans.
Director Kasi Lemmons says the movie is the first feature film dedicated solely to Tubman. It aims to present a well-rounded portrait of the oft-mythologized figure.
Tubman has mainly been immortalized through children's books. She has made cameo appearances in dramas centered on other Civil War era figures. Her life has been reduced to broad strokes. Her individual character overlooked in favor of portraying an idealized superhuman.
She was born Araminta "Minty" Ross. The future Harriet Tubman came of age in antebellum Dorchester County. She was headstrong even as an adolescent. She defied orders. She was soon relegated from domestic work to more punishing labor in the fields. This familiarity with the land would prove helpful down the line. That's 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. They were sold to unknown slaveholders in the Deep South. Here sisters were Linah, Soph and Mariah Ritty. 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. She had successfully commissioned a lawyer to comb through an old will. He tried to prove that her mother, Harriet "Rit" Ross, should have been freed upon reaching age 45. But Rit's current owner was Edward Brodess. He had opted to ignore his grandfather's wishes. Rather than freeing Rit, Brodess illegally kept her. He also kept her children.
On March 1, 1849, Tubman heard a rumor. It suggested Brodess was preparing to sell her and multiple siblings to slaveholders in the Deep South.
Brodess died one week later. His death left Rit and her children at the mercy of his widow, Eliza. Tubman was faced with an increasingly uncertain future. She prepared to flee.
By this point, she had married a free man named John. She was perhaps considering starting a family. Relationships between free and enslaved individuals were not uncommon. But constraints imposed by slaveholders rendered such relationships tenuous at best. This is evident in the movie when Tubman's owner warns John to stay away from his property.
Tubman convinced several of her brothers to join an escape attempt in mid-September. Before making much progress, the brothers decided to turn back. They were fearful of the dangers awaiting them. Their sister would have to make the journey alone.
She was guided by the North Star. She was aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad. Tubman traveled north to Philadelphia.
The film shifts focus to its subject's rescue missions following Tubman's successful escape. It explores many different threads. It looks at her attempts to reunite the Ross family in freedom and the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act's passage in 1850. It also looks at the Underground Railroad's little-known network of black maritime workers.
Tubman is often portrayed as a benign, grandmotherly "Moses" figure. But she was a young woman when she escaped bondage. That fact is overlooked. So is a sense of her fierce militant nature. Kate Clifford Larson wrote Bound for the Promised Land. In it she explains that Tubman carried a pistol during rescue missions. But this aspect of the trips is rarely highlighted. That's particularly true in the children's books where Tubman is most often placed front and center.
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861. This was just months after Tubman's final rescue mission in late 1860. The film speeds through this period. It pauses briefly in June 1863 to reference the Combahee River Raid. That was a military expedition that freed around 750 enslaved people and was the first of its kind to be led by a woman. It focuses 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. She was about 90 years old. The movie does not address the bulk of this long life. Instead it opts to retrace the most well known sequence of events. There are many chapters missing from the film. These include Tubman's time as a Union spy and her work as a suffragist. It includes neurosurgery undertaken to address her decades-old brain injury. It includes her 1869 marriage to Nelson Davis and the couple's 1874 adoption of a baby girl. Her name was Gertie. It also includes her financial hardship later in life and the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly. It opened in 1908.
Elliott says, "I hope that viewers seek more information on those different aspects of slavery and freedom."