At Last, Harriet Tubman Strides Onto Our Screens

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 27, 2016 3:42 pm

2016 was the year the Underground Railroad became a focus in popular culture — in Colson Whitehead's National Book Award-winning novel, and a critically acclaimed new television drama about a group of runaways fleeing a Georgia plantation in 1857.

Underground, a hit for the WGN network, takes viewers through treacherous terrain, literally and figuratively. It's filled with slave owners, slave catchers, abolitionists and enslaved people, all double-crossing each other. There are sacrifices, rescues and revolts. The first season ends with one of the show's main characters — a runaway maid named Rosalee who has nearly died trying to save her friends — encountering a rifle-carrying dark-skinned woman who offers to teach her how to liberate slaves. "My name's Harriet," she says. As in Harriet Tubman.

"Oh my God," Veronica Wells says as she remembers watching that scene. "I'm so excited. I'm so excited about Harriet Tubman. Because she doesn't play. She doesn't take any mess."

Wells is the culture editor of the website Madam Noire and author of the novel Bettah Days. She calls Underground a brilliant show, with one of the best casts on television. And she's pleased to see more representation of the woman who helped more than 100 people find freedom a decade before the Civil War. Harriet Tubman has been the subject of dances, an opera and a few comedy sketches, but aside from the 1978 TV miniseries A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson, Tubman has been barely featured on screen. "She's a black woman, and there haven't been a lot of stories for black women of any time period," Wells points out.

That's why she's looking forward to the future $20 bill featuring Tubman, an upcoming movie starring Viola Davis, and watching Aisha Hinds play the character in Underground's new season, starting in March.

When Hinds first stepped on Underground's Louisiana set to play Harriet Tubman, she — a seasoned theater professional — instantly burst into tears.
"Even now, oh my God, I get so emotional about it," she says. It was daunting to portray someone whose nearly superhuman courage derived from total confidence that God was advising her, warning her and listening to her.
"Trying to dig deep for that level of faith for what she had done just completely broke me," Hinds says. "I felt unworthy. I felt incapable of really, truly honoring the story she had to tell."

Hinds immersed herself in research. She found Beverly Lowry's biography Harriet Tubman: Imagining A Life particularly useful. And she concentrated on finding smaller truths to make Tubman less of an icon, more of a human.
"How did she peel potatoes in the kitchen?" Hinds asked. "You know, just simple things that you forget to remember about a person. What was she like as a woman? What did it feel like for her to love someone, and for her to desire to be loved?"

Hinds says her Harriet Tubman is witty as well as courageous. And she believes there's a reason why Tubman feels so relevant right now. "I think we're in a time that calls for that level of courage," she said. "That level of resolve, you know, to be completely disgusted with injustice, to the point that you will have to take some huge leaps of faith. And it may take one person leading many."

When the real Harriet Tubman died in 1913, it was in a home for African-American seniors that Tubman herself had established years earlier. Her final words, spoken to a room filled with family and friends, were: "I go to prepare a place for you."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Underground Railroad has been on America's mind this year. It was the backdrop of a novel called "The Underground Railroad" that won this year's National Book Award in fiction. And it was the setting for "Underground," an acclaimed new television drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL: (As Rosalee) We have to go now.

ALDIS HODGE: (As Noah) No, we can't. We got to plan.

GREENE: The upcoming second season adds a new character, and she's based on a real historical figure whose story has been under-represented in movies and television. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Underground" is filled with wild chases and captures.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Wanted - seven escaped slaves.

ULABY: Seven runaways flee a Georgia plantation in 1857 through a treacherous world filled with slave owners double-crossing slave catchers, slave catchers double-crossing abolitionists and enslaved people double-crossing each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I trusted you. Now my family's torn apart. They got my Pearly Mae. They got her.

ULABY: The first season ends with one of the show's main characters, a runaway maid trying to save her friends, meeting a new character - a dark-skinned woman wielding a rifle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

AISHA HINDS: (As Harriet Tubman) They said you was looking to steal slaves.

SMOLLETT-BELL: (As Rosalee) Can't steal something that ain't property in the first place.

HUNDS: (As Harriet Tubman) Well, I aim to teach you how. Name's Harriet.

ULABY: Harriet Tubman.

VERONICA WELLS: Oh, my god. Oh, my god.

ULABY: Veronica Wells, culture editor of the website MadameNoire is one of the millions of "Underground" fans so excited about the new Harriet Tubman character. She can't stop saying how excited she is.

WELLS: I'm so excited. I'm so excited about Harriet Tubman because she doesn't play. She doesn't take any mass.

ULABY: Harriet Tubman helped more than a hundred people find freedom a decade before the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

HUNDS: (As Harriet Tubman) The lord sent you to me to get your family back.

ULABY: But until now, this intensely dramatic character has barely been featured on screen, besides a miniseries from 1978, "A Woman Called Moses," starring Cicely Tyson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A WOMAN CALLED MOSES")

CICELY TYSON: (As Harriet Tubman) I will lead my people out of bondage, Lord.

ULABY: No surprise, says MadameNoire editor Veronica Wells.

WELLS: She's a black woman, and there haven't been a lot of stories for black women of any time period.

ULABY: And that's why Wells is excited to see more of Harriet Tubman on the future $20 bill and an upcoming movie starring Viola Davis. On the WGAN show "Underground," Tubman is played by actress Aisha Hinds. When she first stepped on set, Hines, a seasoned theater professional, burst into tears even.

HUNDS: Even - oh, my God. Even - I get so emotional about it.

ULABY: Hinds did her research and learned Harriet Tubman's nearly superhuman courage came from her total confidence that God was advising her and listening to her.

HUNDS: Trying to dig deep for that level of faith just completely broke me. You know, I felt unworthy. I felt incapable of really, truly honoring the story that she had to tell.

ULABY: So to play an icon, Hinds searched for smaller truths to make Tubman human.

HUNDS: How does she peel potatoes in the kitchen? You know, just simple things that you forget to remember about a person.

ULABY: Actress Aisha Hinds believes there's a reason why Harriet Tubman's story feels so relevant right now.

HUNDS: I think we're in a time that calls for that level of courage, that level of resolve - you know, to be completely disgusted with injustice to the point that you will have to take some huge leaps of faith. And it may take one person leading many.

ULABY: When the real Harriet Tubman died in 1913, it was in a home for African-American seniors she'd established years earlier. Her final words - I go to prepare a place for you. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.