The remarkable life of Harriet Tubman comes to the silver screen

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

The remarkable life of Harriet Tubman comes to the silver screen

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
University of Miami faculty members weigh in on the importance of the new biopic on the iconic slave-turned-abolitionist.

There were no movies. No video clips. No photos. Nothing proffered to spark an interest in a young Gigi Gilbert and make her yearn to learn more.

“It was merely a dot on a historical timeline, only a passing reference,” she recalled of the way slavery was taught in her high school American history class.

And that’s one of the reasons Gilbert, now a scholar in residence at the University of Miami’s School of Education and Human Development, is excited about the new motion picture Harriet.

Set for its U.S. theatrical release in major cities today, the film is the first major biopic on Harriet Tubman, the heroic slave-turned-abolitionist who, using a vast network of activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, led dozens of slaves to freedom during rescue missions to the South.

While the movie is a story on Tubman’s remarkable life, it can, believes Gilbert, ignite a passion in young people who want to learn more about that period in American history that began some 400 years ago when a privateer reached Jamestown, Virginia, bearing human cargo.

“Whenever you can show students through film, video or any kind of visual media the events that occurred during slavery, it sparks a level of awareness and interest in them that becomes a springboard to further exploration,” said Gilbert, a former teacher and administrator in Miami-Dade Public Schools for 35 years.

The movie, which stars British actress Cynthia Erivo as Tubman, is long overdue, said Sumita Chatterjee, a lecturer in UM’s Department of History and Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

“She devoted her life toward the abolition of slavery as a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping countless slaves to freedom,” said Chatterjee. “Her involvement in the Union Army and her political engagement with the cause of women’s suffrage deserve to be acknowledged, and what better way to bring her story to a wider audience than a film.”

Tubman, explained Chatterjee, played a key role in many of the pressing issues of her time. “Although she has stronger name recognition, she is mythologized as an icon, and most people have a very general and surface understanding of her life and work. We need to have deeper engagement with leaders such as her through scholarship, teaching, and films to give women their rightful place in the history of United States,” said Chatterjee.

“The greatest hero in African-American history” is how Don Spivey, Distinguished Professor of History in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, describes Tubman.

“The Medal of Honor was first awarded during the Civil War. Tubman, in my opinion, should have received the medal then or now. Beyond her heroism in leading hundreds to freedom, she was also a war hero directly,” said Spivey, noting that Tubman organized the successful 1863 Combahee River Raid in South Carolina that freed 750 slaves, becoming the only woman to lead a military operation during the Civil War.

Spivey has written extensively on Tubman, devoting a chapter to the iconic abolitionist and calling her the “Moses of her people” in his book Black Pearls of Wisdom: Voicing the African-American Journey for Freedom, Empowerment, and the Future.

“Let’s hope that the film does a decent job of portraying her,” he said.

Erivo’s performance has already inspired talk of an Oscar nomination. But is her portrayal of Tubman completely accurate?

“I don’t think the objective of creating a historic character in a non-documentary film, when there is no archival footage to serve as reference, is to go for literal accuracy because that is impossible to achieve,” said cfrancis blackchild, a faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre Arts. “Instead the more difficult and important task is to imbue the myth associated with that person with a multifaceted sense of humanity that captures the truth of what is known of the life and person represented.”

Tom Musca, an associate professor of professional practice in the School of Communication’s Cinema and Interactive Media department who viewed a screening of Harriet at the 2019 Savannah Film Festival, said that while he is pleased the motion picture was made, “at the same time I was disappointed in the film itself, and that has nothing to do with the subject matter as much as it had to do with the rendition that was put on the screen.”

The movie "minimized the daunting physical challenge of Harriet’s repeated journeys across the Mason-Dixon line and the self-doubt that had to have plagued her before she felt comfortable with her anointed heroine status,” explained Musca, who was the producer and co-writer of "Stand and Deliver," which earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. 

Also, Musca had problems with the extreme civility that characterized the relationship between blacks and whites in the North as depicted in the movie.

Calling attention to motion pictures like "Hidden Figures," which tells the true story of three female African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race and served as the brains behind the mission that launched astronaut John Glenn into space, Chatterjee said more biopics on influential women of color are needed.

“There have been countless women of color who have led important struggles for justice and equality in the past and in our times—artists, musicians, scientists, writers,” said Chatterjee. “Our world will be richer if we celebrated their contributions in all forms—films as well as books.”