Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, making the 90-mile journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania on her own after previously trying to flee with her brothers. Tubman made at least 13 more trips to the South, leading at least 70 enslaved people (though some have suggested the number is as high as 300) to freedom, including family members. A deliverer of the disenfranchised, Tubman earned the sobriquets “Moses” and “General Tubman,” and was one of the most notable “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. She was an abolitionist, a suffragist, and an activist, and served as a scout, spy, and even nurse in the Union Army.
Tubman’s bravery and accomplishments have inspired many works of art, including books, songs, and plays. Yet she had never been at the center of a biopic until Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, and is scheduled for wide release on November 1. That oversight would seem less glaring if studios weren’t so eager to green-light movies about slavery (and, more broadly, racism) that all too often center white people’s experiences. Remember, we got a movie about Newton Knight, a white Southern Unionist who led a revolt against the Confederacy in Mississippi, before we got a dedicated Harriet Tubman biopic. So expectations were high ahead of Harriet’s world premiere, though they may end up being adjusted by lukewarm festival reviews that praised Cynthia Erivo’s lead performance but ultimately found Lemmons’ work too formulaic.
But at least TV directors and creators have seen fit to bring Tubman’s life story to the small screen on multiple occasions. In 1978, Cecily Tyson starred in the NBC miniseries A Woman Called Moses, which was directed by Paul Wendkos. More recently, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski handed over the stage to Araminta Ross (Harriet Tubman’s birth name) in a groundbreaking episode of their historical drama, Underground.
Tubman was first introduced at the end of season one, her face obscured as she extended a hand to Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) following the latter’s daring escape. For season two, the series cast Aisha Hinds as Harriet in a recurring role that saw her venture repeatedly to the South and only slightly less perilous North. Hinds had proven herself a versatile performer on Weeds, True Blood, and Detroit 1-8-7, but her appearance on Underground showed the depths of her magnetism. Green and Pokaski must have already been aware of it, though, because after a season of desperate sprints through the wilderness and town-square stand-offs, they yielded the floor to Hinds—and Harriet—in the season-two episode “Minty.”
We covered the episode when it aired in 2017, but it has only become more captivating upon rewatch. The title points to one of Harriet’s oldest nicknames, and Green and Pokaski’s script certainly delves into her past in what is basically an hour-long televised monologue. There’s some feedback from the crowd, made up of abolitionists and other supporters, that has gathered to hear Harriet speak of what she’s endured only to also hear of all that she still aims to achieve. But “Minty” is essentially a one-woman show, a singular episode of television that breaks the fourth wall with great purpose and even greater impact. Hinds is more than up to the challenge, though, as well as director Anthony Hemingway, who creates distance and intimacy despite never leaving the room.
The setting is an auction house, grimly enough, but Harriet isn’t daunted. She commands the space and the audience; as she talks about her childhood and the cruelty that pervaded it, she makes the group her confidantes, her co-conspirators. As Harriet, Hinds is a gifted storyteller; she shows wry humor and a well of emotion and resilience throughout. She takes to her feet as her talk crescendoes, punctuating memories of violence by pounding the podium, putting the crowd at ease just to push them out of it with the urgency of her message. Her shifts in cadence bring the audience—both the one in front of her and those beyond the fourth wall, watching at home—to the edge of their seats. They react to each development in her story, especially once she invokes John Brown (or “Captain Brown,” as she calls him). Most of these would-be supporters bristle at the mention of her fellow abolitionist, denouncing Brown for being “too extreme.” “His methods give all of us a bad name,” a man rails. Harriet reminds everyone of what is truly bad, and requiring action: “Violence with no cause is brutality.” Fighting back, she tells this predominantly white and upper-class crowd, against those who enslave others isn’t violence but “hope.” “Slavery,” Harriet says, “ain’t just a sin, it’s an act of war.”
This exchange is just one of many examples of how Underground made an age-old struggle for equality feel timely. Green and Pokaski tie together the past and the present, providing an early example of the mealy-mouthed insistence on “civility” that is more obstacle than advantage in any form of activism. Soon, Harriet’s talk crescendoes once more; the scene resets, with Hemingway’s camera set in the rafters, making its way back into the thick of the crowd before settling in front of Hinds’ face. Harriet’s eyes roam the crowd as she speaks of the need to tear down shameful institutions: “’Cause a country built on bodies will always need more for the slaughter.” She locks eyes with the camera while delivering the most urgent part of her speech:
He will provide, but you got to do your part. You got to find what it means for you to be a soldier… beat back those that are trying to kill everything good and right in the world in the name of making it great again. Ain’t nobody get to sit this one out, you hear me?
In Hinds and Hemingway’s hands, this breaking of the fourth wall comes across as earnest but never hokey. It’s a bracing moment, made both more and less bearable by Hinds’ meaningful stare. Harriet doesn’t follow up that question with a reassuring statement; she’s had her say, she’s done the work. Now it’s our turn.
“Minty” achieves what so many biopics can only hope to do—make a flesh-and-blood character of a near-mythical figure. As much as her wardrobe evokes one of the most famous photos of Harriet Tubman, Hinds isn’t simply playing an image brought to life. She imbues Harriet with immense passion, intelligence, purpose, even remorse. Green and Pokaski’s script grounds us in Harriet’s past while Hemingway’s direction leads us through her present and into ours. The plethora of viewing options grows bigger by the day, but “Minty” is as close to required viewing as it gets.
Underground seasons one and two are available to stream on Hulu.