EXCLUSIVE: How ‘Underground’ Is Making History by Telling Harriet Tubman’s Story on Screen


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It’s largely been a struggle to bring Tubman to life
onscreen. After failing to get a biopic financed for theatrical release, Davis
turned to HBO to get her adaptation of Bound
for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman – Portrait of an American Hero

produced. While Davis says
that it’s because Tubman is a black woman — a protagonist that she’s been told
won’t sell at the box office, Howard says it’s largely due to the fact that her
story is rooted in a slave narrative. “Slave stories are inherently uncommercial,
at least on the surface,” explains the screenwriter behind Remember the Titans and Ali,
who has struggled to get Harriet made.
“Every two years, I pull it off the shelf and go, ‘What about this?’”

What finally opened the door for Harriet in particular, Allen says, was the success of 12 Years a Slave, the 2013 adaptation of
the memoir by Solomon Northrup. Not only did it win three Academy Awards, the
film was also considered a box office success, making over $187 million
worldwide on a $17 million budget. “Maybe a year after this,” Howard recalls telling
himself. “12 Years a Slave said we
could revisit this very painful period but the movie will still do business.”
Ultimately, it took four years to get Harriet
financed — Fences producer Charles
King has partnered with the producers of Beasts
of No Nation
and Debra Martin Chase (Sparkle)
on the film — but it’s now scheduled to beginning shooting in August with TV
director Seith Mann (VH1’s The Breaks,
Homeland) at the helm.

“Nobody thought a slave narrative could make any money, let
alone be a hit TV show,” Howard says. Nor did
anyone expect Hidden Figures, a true
story about three black women working for NASA, to beat out Rogue One at the box office on its
opening weekend and eventually become the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee
at the 2017 Oscars. “So we’re opening people’s eyes.”

MORE: Watch John Legend Take the Musical Reins of WGN America’s Slave Drama ‘Underground’

Howard also credits Underground
for generating interest in Harriet,
saying the key to the TV show’s success has been to make the story
entertaining. In fact, both Underground
and Harriet will showcase Tubman as something
of an action hero, which Howard says is radical largely because it’s not a
typical history lesson. It’ll certainly change audiences’ perceptions of Tubman,
whom most audiences learned about as a kid and Bound for the Promised Land author Kate Clifford Larson thinks is
often viewed
as a “juvenile, one-dimensional character that was better
suited for cartoons than as a serious treatment of a blood-and-flesh woman.”

In the opening scene of Underground’s
premiere, Tubman is seen wielding a gun as she confronts a white slave owner. The
moment prompted someone on set to say to Hinds, “I don’t think she carries a
gun,” which the actress adamantly shut down. “By her own admission, she carried
a gun,” Hinds says, adding that people share that perception of Tubman as a
passive leader. “That’s a generality that people have about women in general,
which is another reason why revisiting her [is so important] … She was
definitely a woman who wielded a gun and an ax and was willing to use them
both. She exited the womb with a spirit of resistance.”

For the part of Underground
co-creators and executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, they wanted to
tell a story of a woman who “was strong, driven and unflappable.” While it was
inevitable that the series, which tells the story of revolutionaries of the
Underground Railroad, would address Tubman, both Green and Pokaski wanted to
build up to her narrative. “Hers is a story that is best served by the long
format of television, because she did so many remarkable things,” says the duo,
who used season one to build up to the movement, with Allen adding that there
hasn’t been anyone with an arc like hers. 

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