I'm Glad the Harriet Tubman Biopic Is on Its Way, So Some of You Can Finally Learn About the Underground Railroad
By: Panama Jackson, The Root
The trailer for the biopic about Harriet Tubman—called Harriet—recently hit the internets; the movie hits theaters in November. The film (perhaps controversially) stars Cynthia Erivo in the role of the most famous Harriet of all time. I have no facts to back up that statement, but I feel it in my soul so I’m going with it.
I realize that there’s some controversy surrounding Erivo’s casting in this role because she’s from England and apparently some American black folks think that it would make more sense to cast a black American in said role. The same conversation reared its head around Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Daniel Kaluuya’s casting in the role of “Chris.” Considering the fairly America-specific race issues on display, some felt like a black American would have been able to bring something to that role that a non-American black person couldn’t. Same with the casting of David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Samuel L. Jackson famously had some strong remarks about those casting choices.
I struggle with that, mostly because it isn’t like there’s much of a fight to make sure (country-specific) Africans play the role of actual Africans in movies we see. I mean, if you’ll remember, Forest Whitaker played Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Will Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion, bad accent and all. And Wakanda may not be a real place (real in your heart doesn’t count), but one thing we know for sure, it’s in Africa; Chadwick Boseman is absolutely from South Carolina. For the record, I do realize there is always some chatter about black Americans playing African roles; it does not seem nearly as loud.
I don’t know; actors act. I’ll let those who feel strongly one way or another fight hash that out. Meanwhile, I’m definitely going to see Cynthia Erivo chase this Oscar. See, I’m not here to argue about their facial features, or here to turn atheists into believers, though. Nope. I don’t care about the controversy. I’m glad the movie is being made. Not because we need more black movies or more biopics (I’m not actually sure we do at this point, we could probably chill for a while).
No, I’m glad this movie is being made for one very specific reason: so that the vast majority of people who see it actually learn something about the Underground Railroad.
Real talk, I’ve been dumbfounded by how little people know about what Harriet Tubman actually did to warrant that $20 bill discussion, where she went or even the Underground Railroad at large. All most people know is Harriet Tubman equals Underground Railroad. I don’t know if we need to blame public education or what. Social media will have you thinking every black person is up on all black things and that’s just not true. I’m not here to shame anybody’s black history education. Au contraire, I’m here for the increased learning.
I hope this movie illuminates the fact that Harriet Tubman didn’t walk back and forth several times from like, Louisiana to Nova Scotia. Araminta Ross—Tubman’s birth name—escaped from Maryland to Philadelphia. There’s even a Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge, Md., where she escaped to freedom from. She definitely went back and got her family and took others to freedom and points further north. She was also a spy for the Union Army.
I’d wager that most people (not all; I know everybody who reads this article knows the truth!) have no idea exactly what route Harriet Tubman made on her road to freedom and in her quest to liberate others. Or actual routes of the Underground Railroad. Which is OK-ish. Books are a thing and knowledge is power. But overall, I’m excited to see the movie purely for the education of it all. Hell, some folks still believe—and actively share—that inaccurate alleged quote of Tubman saying she freed 1,000 slaves and would have freed 1,000 more if they knew they were slaves. Ain’t her words, fam-a-lam. Hopefully, some form of education cometh.
Also, I lied. If you are somebody who, as a grown black person, still thinks the Underground Railroad was an actual train system, then yes, I am judging you. I’m also OK with judging you. Go see Harriet, since neither books nor Wikipedia are your ministry.