Historians Manisha Sinha, Kate Clifford Larson, and Milton Sernett Interviewed for Article on Historical Accuracy of Harriet FilmHistorians in the News
tags: film, historical accuracy, slavery, historians, Manisha Sinha, Harriet Tubman, Harriet
The fact that Harriet is the first feature-length film to tell the story of one of the most famous women in American history may sound improbable, but it’s no less improbable than many of the facts of her life. The new biopic is mostly true to what we know of the real Harriet Tubman, though writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans, Ali) take some considerable liberties with both the timeline of events and the creation of several characters. We consulted biographies, articles, primary sources, and a few contemporary historians so we could break down what’s historical record and what’s artistic license.
When the movie opens, Minty and her husband have hired a lawyer to investigate an old will left behind by the great-grandfather of her owner, Edward Brodess, that stipulated that upon the day that Minty’s mother turned 45, she and her children would be set free. Brodess not only refuses to free the family but bans John from visiting Minty on the plantation. This is mostly true to life. The couple did hire a lawyer to look at the will, and he determined that, like Tubman’s father, her mother should have been liberated at the age of 45. But according to historian and Tubman expert Kate Clifford Larson, who consulted on Harriet, the will stipulated that Harriet and her siblings be set free when they turned 45—not at the same time as their mother.
Upon noticing the escape of Harriet’s brothers, the vengeful Gideon hires Bigger Long, a slave catcher who is rumored to be the best in the area. To his (and my) surprise, Long is a black man. There’s no evidence that the Brodesses hired a slave catcher, but according to a few historians whom I reached out to, it’s not entirely impossible that such a mercenary would have been black. Joshua Rothman, the chair of the University of Alabama history department, told me in an email that “there were surely black slave catchers”:
Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, agreed that such people existed but suggested there weren’t many: “There were a few free blacks who were involved in kidnapping rings especially in Northern and border state cities. But they were few and far between and subject to reprisals from a fairly well organized free black community. Many more of course were involved in assisting fugitive slaves and in the abolitionist underground.”
Milton Sernett, professor emeritus of history at Syracuse University, said, “While she was certainly a nurse, spy, and scout for the Union Army, I think the claims that she was the first female general and commanded a raid are wishful thinking.” Regardless of her rank, she certainly played an important role in planning and guiding the raid, and she did, rather improbably for a woman of her time, live to be 91.
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