Harriet Tubman lived the kind of life Hollywood biopics dream of. It was filled with huge dramatic stakes, big moments, and plenty of emotional opportunities for an actress who wants to win an Oscar. And now that Tubman's going to be on the $20 bill, it would seem even more like this is the right time for a movie about her.
Devin Faraci, editor in chief of the movie site Birth. Movies. Death., identified three periods in Tubman's life that would make natural movies — with strong dramatic arcs and everything.
Harriet Tubman movie 1: Early life/escape from slavery— devin faraci (@devincf) April 20, 2016
Movie 2: Underground Railroad
Movie 3: Union Spy
In response to Faraci, author Seth Grahame-Smith said that Tubman has only been depicted onscreen in a feature film once.
@devincf Sad: Only one theatrical motion picture has portrayed Harriet Tubman to date. Sadder: It was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.— Seth Grahame-Smith (@sethgs) April 20, 2016
Presumably, Grahame-Smith would know, because his novel formed the basis of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And when I checked his tweet, I could only find major fictional depictions of Tubman in a TV miniseries and a short film. She's also had tiny parts in a handful of independent films that barely saw release. (You can see every time someone has played Harriet Tubman onscreen here.)
Now, that's not to discount either. A TV miniseries is a big deal! But neither has the prestige of a big, Oscar-baiting feature film (or even a less awards-friendly, more action-focused take on Tubman's days as a Union spy in the Civil War).
Not every historical figure has a great film — but Hollywood at least usually tries with white men
There are long lists of American historical figures who simply haven't had a great movie made about them.
Alexander Hamilton, for instance, has only been the protagonist of a little-known 1931 movie (based on a Broadway play), though one presumes he will soon be the subject of a much better-known movie (also presumably based on a Broadway show).
Even just looking at presidents, it's hard to think of a truly impressive film about everybody from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt. (Arguably the only president with multiple great films is Abraham Lincoln — though Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not among them.)
Yet if you look at the fictional histories of these men, it's evident that Hollywood has at least tried. Andrew Jackson, for instance, the man Tubman is replacing on the $20, has appeared in numerous films, including something called The Gorgeous Hussy.
Tubman's failure to even appear as a supporting player in others' films is another reminder that a story — true or not — can have all the advantages for a big-screen adaptation, but it still takes massive will to push it through a Hollywood studio system that continues to be skeptical about telling stories about anybody other than straight white men (and comic-book superheroes).
Hope may be on the way, however.
Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Viola Davis is developing a film about Tubman's life. (Currently, the project is set for TV's HBO, not a major studio, but things can change.) Development is a long, arduous process, with many possible places where everything can fall apart, but this proposed project just got a nice infusion of free publicity.
Here's hoping it makes this movie a reality.