American history, especially as it’s taught to children, is full of myths. George Washington and the proverbial cherry tree. Abraham Lincoln, who actually was a successful attorney, being referred to as a simple country lawyer. Benjamin Franklin suggesting that America’s national bird should be the turkey instead of the bald eagle.
Franklin, folks, was an inveterate jokester.
The reasoning behind these mythical representations is obvious: Real people are complex creatures, and even the great ones typically have as many flaws as they do strengths. But unless we’re talking about comic superheroes – and I’m thinking specifically of Batman – we prefer our real-life heroes to be unflawed.
Take “Harriet,” the bio-pic of Harriet Tubman co-written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, which stars Cynthia Erivo as the famous escaped slave and then-conductor on what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
Some depictions of Tubman have portrayed her as a grandmotherly figure, a bit dour maybe in photographs, but determined and courageous in her attempts to bring slaves out of the South and north to freedom.
And while this portrayal is true, it is also a bit simplistic. Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – made her own escape mostly alone, a harrowing 100-mile trek from Maryland to Philadelphia. Since suffering a head injury as a child, she had endured occasional spells, which some historians have speculated were epileptic-type seizures but which Tubman herself considered transmissions from God.
After her own escape, Tubman reportedly made 13 trips back South, freeing some 70 slaves, becoming so much of a nuisance to Southern slave owners that she was dubbed with the bandit name of Moses and ended up carrying a $300 bounty on her head. And, yes, she did carry guns – a small fact that most popular depictions of Tubman skip over. She even participated in the Civil War, both as a spy for the North and as the leader of a military operation that freed an estimated 700 slaves.
This is not to say that writer-director Lemmons adheres to facts alone in telling her story. As with virtually every other historical depiction ever made for the big screen, Lemmons invents characters, adds dramatic tension and changes real events for emphasis.
While Eliza Ann Brodess, the wife of her owner played in the movie by Jennifer Nettles, was real – her son Gideon (played by Joe Alwyn) was not. Another invented character is the free Philadelphia woman, Marie Buchanan played by Janelle Monaé, who befriends Tubman.
And Tubman didn’t adopt her new name to mark her new-found freedom. She’d gone by the name of Tubman since marrying his first husband, John Tubman, and she’d chosen Harriet to honor her mother.
Still, imagine what it must have been like to travel hundreds of miles, much of it at night, dodging armed patrols, shepherding groups of frightened people to freedom. It couldn’t have been easy.
So while, similar to the real-life human being it portrays, the movie “Harriet” might have its flaws, it is an important depiction for our time: at least as important as a future president’s supposed chopping down of a cherry tree.