You know a biopic is gaining traction in the awards race when it’s hounded by claims of historical inaccuracies. Last year, films like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Green Book” came under fire for presenting distorted or incomplete depictions; this year, Focus Features’ “Harriet” runs the gauntlet. However, writer-director Kasi Lemmons isn’t having it: She firmly believes that it’s impossible to operate as both a first-rate screenwriter and a first-rate historian.
“Of course I embellished, I’m a screenwriter,” said Lemmons, who wrote the script with Gregory Allen Howard. “I added to the story because anybody that’s a writer that approaches a real story has to embellish.”
Since Tubman never learned to read or write, details about her life come largely from first- and second-hand accounts. Lemmons’ primary sources were Tubman biographies, including “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” written in 1869 by Tubman’s abolitionist friend Sarah Bradford. Written to raise money for Tubman and her cause, the book often embellished Tubman’s stories to make them more thrilling and therefore marketable.
Lemmons also relied on Kate Clifford Larson’s 2004 “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero,” which uses a trove of documents and sources as well as genealogical data to paint a portrait of Tubman and her times. She also read academic papers on Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and accessed first-hand accounts from abolitionists who were “entertained” by Tubman’s “kind of one-woman show” in her twilight years.
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What Lemmons wanted to avoid, however, was an aspect of myth-making that threatened to make Tubman more legend than human. After her death, Tubman, born Araminta “Minty” Ross, was mostly relegated to the ranks of children’s literature. She was often pictured as an old, stately woman, drawn from formal photos that were taken near the end of her life.
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“Those books really defanged her to make her more acceptable to American readers, because there’s something quite terrifying about the image of a black woman carrying a rifle,” Lemmons said.
Even pop-culture figures like Hillary Clinton and Kanye “slavery was a choice” West have spread Tubman myth. In 2018, West incorrectly attributed a quote to Tubman in a tweet: “I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” According to the Tubman biography website, the quote has no documentation and was popularized (if not invented) in the 1990s. West later deleted the tweet.
At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Clinton gave a speech noted for what she said was a Tubman quote: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” However, scholars quickly said there was no evidence of Tubman ever said it; more likely, it was an embellishment that began with the Tubman-themed children’s books.
“Harriet” stars Cynthia Erivo as Tubman in her mid-20s. She’s a strong, agile and vigorous woman, facing down slave owners, armed with a rifle almost her size, ready for action after escaping slavery and establishing an underground railroad network to free others. She may have also been a spy, worked as a nurse, and served in the U.S. Army during a critical point of the Civil War.
Of course, cinema has tremendous power that arguably transmits information more effectively, and permanently, than historical biographies. For many viewers, it might be their entry, or even their only look, into a person’s life, event, or period, especially as reading among Americans continues to decline in the face of screens big and small.
Still, any dramatization implies change. Time has to be compressed, sometimes resulting in the loss of characters and/or the creation of new ones. In “Harriet,” some characters are fabrications, like Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a free black woman who takes in Tubman, and Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn), Harriet’s young, conflicted slave owner.
Lemmons also plays loosely with some of the dates. In “Harriet,” Tubman has a reputation for freeing slaves on the Underground Railroad well before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it legal for runaways to be captured and returned to the South. In truth, while slave escape routes were established at that point, Tubman didn’t make her own escape until September 1849.
Like most biopics, “Harriet” is a condensed version of a life. “Harriet” focuses largely on the years between its heroine’s escape and the end of her Underground Railroad days, compressing a decade into just over two hours, to create the dramatic, engaging and entertaining whole that the audience demands.