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First Film About Harriet Tubman Opens in US Theaters


This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from "Harriet," a film that will be featured during the Toronto Film Festival.
First Film About Harriet Tubman Opens in US Theaters
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Harriet Tubman is considered one of the most heroic people in American history.

Born Araminta Ross, or Minty, Tubman was an abolitionist and political activist, and fought in the American Civil War. But across America, Tubman is best known for rescuing more than 70 enslaved people through a system called the Underground Railroad.

And now, a new film tells her story. Harriet is the first full-length film about Tubman’s life. It opened last week in theaters across the United States.

For many people who know only children’s book stories about Tubman, Harriet offers a more detailed story of the woman known in her day as the Moses of her people.

Moses was a biblical leader who led his fellow Jews out of slavery.

Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress
Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture shared with the Library of Congress


The film Harriet centers on Tubman’s escape from slavery in Maryland in 1849 and the rescues that led so many enslaved people to freedom.

Cynthia Erivo plays Tubman.

She said stories that present Tubman as an older woman do not give a complete picture.

“It is important to know this was a really young woman who took a lot of risk in what she was doing,” Erivo said.

Harriet director Kasi Lemmons said she was moved to make the film after the recent discovery of a photo of Tubman. “There was this very small, young woman who managed to do incredible things,” said Lemmons. The picture was believed to be taken in the 1860s when Tubman would have been in her early forties.

Cynthia Erivo arrives at the international premiere of the Harriet Tubman biopic "Harriet" in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 10, 2019.
Cynthia Erivo arrives at the international premiere of the Harriet Tubman biopic "Harriet" in Toronto, Ontario, Canada September 10, 2019.

Earlier this year, that picture was on show at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Today, many Americans still only have basic knowledge of Tubman’s life. Some do not know, for example, that she served in the Union Army as a spy during the American Civil War. In 1863, she led 150 black soldiers on a gunboat raid in the state of South Carolina. The raid freed more than 700 enslaved people.

Tubman also became a leader in the fight to establish voting rights for women. She was in her early 90s when she died in 1913.

Efforts to make a full-length movie about Tubman have been discussed for several years. But Lemmons said her project came to life when she found Erivo. But Erivo is British, not American, and some people are displeased by Lemmons’ choice as a result.

This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, left, and Aria Brooks as Anger in a scene from "Harriet."
This image released by Focus Features shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, left, and Aria Brooks as Anger in a scene from "Harriet."


Erivo, however, believes there are common experiences between black people of both countries.

Director Kasi Lemmons says Tubman herself was the spiritual guide of the movie’s production.

“I really thought about this as…[bringing] Harriet to life so that young girls could see this young woman heroine, and that the world could see her as this fierce, strong, feminine presence that she was,” Lemmons said.

Harriet earned $12 million from movie goers last weekend. The website Metacritic reports the film received generally favorable criticism.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant adapted this story for Learning English based on the Associated Press and other news reports. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

abolitionistn. a person who wants to stop or abolish slavery

Underground Railroadn. a network of safe houses and escape routes that helped enslaved African-Americans flee to freedom into free states and Canada

manage tophrase. to succeed in doing something difficult

incredible adj. extremely good, great, or large

fierceadj. very strong or intense

feminineadj. of, relating to or suited to women or girls

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