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Harriet Tubman Facts and Myths: How the Movie Tried to Get it Right


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.

Read entire article at NY Times