You haven't seen Harriet Tubman like this.
In the new film “Harriet,” in theaters Friday, expect a young, fiery depiction of the American icon, who escaped slavery only to return to the South repeatedly as a conductor known as "Moses" on the Underground Railroad.
In “Harriet,” the American heroine who helped roughly 70 slaves reach freedom through a network of safe houses is portrayed by stage actress Cynthia Erivo, who earned a 2016 Tony for her performance as Celie in Broadway’s “The Color Purple.” (Fun fact: Erivo is around 5-foot-1, just an inch taller than Tubman was.)
With thrillerlike pacing and daring plantation runs, the film charts Tubman’s evolution from an illiterate slave to an abolitionist and Union spy during the Civil War.
“She was incredibly brave, and fast and strong. She had the makings of a real-life superhero, which she was,” “Harriet” director Kasi Lemmons says.
'Harriet' is in theaters: Here's where you can learn about Harriet Tubman in real life
So how much of the historical drama is accurate? We checked in with Lemmons and historian Kate Clifford Larson, who consulted on "Harriet."
Did an enslaved Tubman really hire a lawyer?
In “Harriet,” Tubman (known then as "Minty") confronts her slave owners after hiring a lawyer, insisting that her family's freedom had been promised by the landowners' great-grandfather. Did she really do that? “She did!” Larson says. “She earned the $5 to pay for the attorney to investigate an old will. Someone in the family had known ... that when Harriet Tubman’s mother turned 45, she was supposed to be set free.”
There is one Hollywood flourish though, the historian says: The will decreed that Tubman and her siblings should be set free when they, too, turned 45 – not at the same time as their mother. Under threat of being sold further South, Tubman escaped in 1849, journeying nearly 90 miles to get to Pennsylvania.
Did Harriet Tubman typically carry guns?
While Tubman is often pictured as a reserved senior, “Harriet,” depicts the freedom fighter as a youthful, and yes, gun-toting heroine. “Why do our heroes have to be warm and fuzzy and palatable with all their edges taken off? “ Lemmons asks. “We are a very brave, very strong people and we have had fierce leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. had edge, and so did Harriet.”
It's why images of Tubman holding firearms run through "Harriet," as she relied on weapons for both protection and intimidation for slaves who dangerously got cold feet mid-run. “She told people that before they ran: ‘Once we go, there’s no going back,’” the director says.
Did the real Harriet Tubman have psychic visions?
In the film, Tubman is portrayed as a deeply religious woman whose psychic visions aided her dangerous journeys on the Underground Railroad.
In real life, “she was intensely faithful. That strong sense of faith was somewhat typical on the Eastern Shore, that Methodist kind of intensity,” Larson says. As for her dreamlike visions, an overseer struck Tubman on the head with a heavy weight as a 13-year-old, and she suffered seizures for the rest of her life. Tubman believed those seizures were prophetic. "She believed that God was speaking to her and guiding her, telling her what to do and protecting her," the historian says.
Was Joe Alwyn’s character in 'Harriet' real?
In short, not really. In the film, Harriet is chased by her slave owner’s vengeful grandson, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), with whom she grew up. While Gideon's mother, the plantation matriarch Eliza Brodess (played by Jennifer Nettles) “was known as a pretty nasty person," says Lemmons, history has given only slight references to her son, Jonathan. So filmmakers took creative liberty filling in Alwyn's character.
What Lemmons did know is that Jonathan took the slaves to market when young. “And I started to think, what is it like to take people your age or younger and sell them?” she says. Though cruel and conniving on screen, in real life Alwyn is “the sweetest guy in the world, the filmmaker adds. "He’s the most gentlemanly person.”
How often were slaves caught by black trackers?
In “Harriet,” white and black trackers work together to catch slaves running north. That really happened, Larson affirms, though in "much fewer" numbers than white slave hunters. But for some free blacks, the money wasn’t easy to resist, she said. In those days, “you could buy a farm for $400 and feed your family and live a good enough life. All you’d have to do was go out and capture one or two runaway slaves and you were set. They were very uncommon but they did exist, and it was a problem for the community.”
Did Tubman dress like a man to escape notice?
In the film, Tubman's sharp intelligence is on display, along with the variety of disguises she employed, from dressing like a man to donning clothes a middle-class free black woman would wear.
This really happened. “She did talk about it ... that she did sometimes dress in disguise, either she could wear men's clothing, or dress as an old woman, or dress as a middle-class woman in fine clothes, because white people wouldn’t suspect she was necessarily a slave,” Larson says.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Harriet': Fact-checking the new Harriet Tubman movie