How 'Underground' Is Making History by Telling Harriet Tubman's Story on Screen (Exclusive)

WGN America

When Underground returns to WGN America for season two on Wednesday, March 8, it’ll make history by presenting Harriet Tubman’s narrative onscreen for the first time since 1978, when Cicely Tyson played the abolitionist on the TV miniseries A Woman Called Moses. In the 39 years since, there’s been little of Tubman’s vast story -- from her escape from slavery to the Underground Railroad to her role as spy and military leader during the Civil War and, later, a suffragette -- presented, unless one counts her brief appearance on an episode of NBC's 1982 time-traveling series Voyagers! or in 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which even the film’s screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, admitted was “sad.”

In fact, several versions of Abraham Lincoln’s story have appeared on TV and in theaters since 1978, with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln earning Daniel Day-Lewis the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the president. Even Frederick Douglass, who is portrayed by John Legend on season two of Underground, has seen his story told onscreen more times than Tubman.

“We’ve grown accustomed to talking about the rock stars in history again and again,” Aisha Hinds tells ET, lamenting the fact that Tubman has largely been ignored. The Under the Dome actress, who will also be seen on Fox’s upcoming Shots Fired, portrays Tubman on Underground and says that it’s time “we revisit some of our other historical icons.”

However, that’s all (hopefully) about to change as the series leads a renewed interest in Tubman, who the U.S. Treasury announced in April 2016 is going to be the new face of the $20 bill, ousting Andrew Jackson. Her story will be told not only on the WGN America drama, but also in two upcoming films: Harriet, written by Gregory Allen Howard and starring Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo, and an untitled HBO biopic starring Academy Award winner and How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis. 

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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 BreaksHomeland) 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.”

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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“This story demands some space,” Green and Pokaski says, explaining her story is fit for TV -- and attention. Not only is Tubman an integral part of the series’ overall narrative, she’ll also get a platform to tell her story in episode six, which Hinds and the creators refer to as Tubman’s TED Talk. During the upcoming episode, Tubman will hold court as she speaks not only to her fellow onscreen characters but also to audiences watching on TV. “They’re honoring her by telling her story the way she told her story,” Hinds says of this historic moment, which will include Tubman’s own words from the real-life speeches she used to give and might be a challenge to audiences not used to watching TV in that way.

Filming that episode in particular was a spiritual moment for Hinds, who says that Tubman’s spirit consumed her. “She was just using me to now reintroduce herself to this generation,” she says, adding: “I’m not so worried about how it will be received.”

Admittedly, Hinds did become overwhelmed by the weight of portraying Tubman when she started preparing for the role. While there are plenty of books on her life, there is no video footage and no past onscreen portrayals, aside from Tyson, to rely on to help find Tubman’s voice or movement. “That actually crippled me for a moment because I felt inadequate to encompass the legacy of this hero, this woman,” Hinds says. She eventually dug deep into texts that revealed the layers of humanity of a woman that so many only know from classroom textbooks. “Once I began to learn about these nuances, it gave me permission to loosen up and allow her to consume me and to use my body as her vessel.”

Meanwhile, Erivo says she’s “trying to soak it all in.” For the Broadway star, Harriet will be her biggest screen role following a celebrated run in the Broadway musical revival of The Color Purple. Alongside Hinds and Davis, she will be one of three women to simultaneously embody the historic figure. “I’m completely grateful to be able to play that role,” Erivo says, adding: “I hope I do it justice.”

While it may be daunting to embody a person such as Tubman, whose legacy has largely been ignored by Hollywood until now, it’s hard to ignore how much her story resonates today. “We’re living in a time right now where we could use a kind of faith, a kind of power, the kind of resistance, the kind of revolution that was embedded inside Harriet,” Hinds says. And Green and Pokaski add: “This was a woman who actually reconciled what she knew about America with what she believed it could be. Now seems like a good time to remind us that one person with focus and commitment can make that kind of change.” 

--Additional reporting from Angelique Jackson