Harriet Tubman was a force.
And that’s an understatement.
The movie, Harriet, out this Friday, Nov. 1, gives a tiny glimpse into the life of this brilliant woman.
“She was a feminist and she was a resistance fighter,” said Harriet director Kasi Lemmons, who is known for the classic film Eve’s Bayou. “She was fierce. She was a woman who loved and was loved.”
Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Md., Tubman was rented out as a slave at the age of 6, separated from her family and loved ones. Tubman saw three of her sisters sold to plantations in the Deep South, and at the age of 27, she ran away after learning she would also be sold South.
Tubman trekked 100 miles from Maryland to Pennsylvania by herself, using God as her guide she would say.
But Tubman didn’t want freedom without her family.
She returned to Maryland to get her husband, John Tubman,
a free man. But he had taken another wife after Tubman had been
gone for more than a year.
Few knew of this pain. It hurt.
Tubman, known as “Moses” is often associated with her heroic feats.
History leaves out the fact that she had been married and that she loved deeply.
The film shows this other side of Tubman, says Cynthia Erivo, the Tony Award-winning actress who plays Tubman in the film.
“I knew she was married to John, but I just didn’t know what a sweeping love it was, how big it was,” Erivo told The Crisis. “I felt like it gave her the humanity that we don’t get to see just from pictures and from the story of her. There’s this whole other side that people don’t know is there. She liked strawberries and fine china. There’s this sweetness mixed in with this fire and fury.”
Tubman helped her brothers escape, and over an eight-year period made more trips – at least 19 – to rescue others, including her parents. History notes that she helped more than 70 enslaved people escape.
“There’s a wonderful way in which she loves her family. She keeps coming back for them,” Erivo noted during an interview in Washington, D.C. “[It’s also] loving people. To be able to come back for people you don’t know, there has to be some sort of — not just love for what’s right — but a love for people.”
Tubman was tiny – barely 5-feet tall (and that was when she wore her high boots).
She couldn’t read or write.
She would also have seizures and blackouts as a result of a head injury she sustained as a teenager after being hit with a 2-pound weight by an overseer who was chasing another slave.
How did this small, petite, illiterate woman, having no formal education, get so far and save so many lives?
First, there was help from “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who helped runaway slaves escape.
As the film shows, it was a vast network that included White men in horse-drawn carriages who hid slaves underneath the hay in their wagons and Black watermen who worked along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and carried messages to enslaved loved ones.
“The story of the Underground Railroad is maybe one of the original stories in America of Black resistance,” said Leslie Odom Jr., who plays abolitionist William Still in the film. “Harriet sheds light on the many people who chose freedom.”
But Tubman was also mighty strong in faith — perhaps bigger in spirit than any man.
It was that faith that gave her the courage to keep going back even when others, like her friend Still, warned of the danger.
Still, said Odom, was raised by two escaped slaves and had a deep abiding sense of justice. He and Tubman worked in tandem for freedom.
“I’d never thought about what could have possibly driven them to do that work, but now, having a family of my own, I understand the motivations and passion behind that work,” said Odom, who won a Tony Award for his role as Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. “When we’re studying these legends, they can become statues. This movie shines a light on their humanity in a way that’s beyond just the wins and the losses.”
In addition to Erivo and Odom, Harriet also features singers Janelle Monae and Jennifer Nettles, actress Vanessa Bell Calloway, known for her roles in Coming to America and What's Love Got To Do With It, and Omar Dorsey of the hit show Queen Sugar on the OWN Network.
The film focuses on Tubman's chosen career as a freedom fighter.
She worked for the Union Army as a spy and was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War. In fact, she led the raid at the Combahee River in South Carolina, helping to free more than 700 slaves.
Later, Tubman would remarry a man 20 years her junior. During her elder years, she opened a home for aging former slaves. She died in 1913 at the age of 91 or 93.
Director Lemmons says Tubman’s story is one of inspiration, of what could be accomplished through sheer force of will.
“Harriet was somebody who had almost superhuman abilities, a superhuman amount of courage and determination, but she was actually very human and she was very much a woman,” said Lemmons. “She was an amazing person, and she personifies to me our resistance and our resilience.”