They called her Moses, this former slave who in a decade led more than 300 of her people to freedom on the Underground Railroad from Maryland to Canada.
Eluding bounty hunters, braving the worst of weather and keeping her charges in line, Harriet Tubman was honored by the high and loved by the low for her liberation efforts. She went on to fight in the Civil War and became involved in the women's suffragette movement. Tubman also received a Diamond Jubilee medal from Queen Victoria.
But, except for a 1977 U.S. postage stamp in her honor, there has been scant recent recognition of this grand woman. This may change this week when NBC presents "A Woman Called Moses," starring Cicely Tyson, in two, two-hour segments tonight and tomorrow night at 9 o'clock on Channel 4.
The drama, as warm as a fiery hearth in a snug cabin, follows Tubman's life from her childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore to her escape and periodic return on rescue missions.
Though the movie is fillled with less sex and violence than most viewers are accustomed to in such productions, it contains many exciting episodes, particularly in the chase scenes along the underground Railroad.
In portraying the many sides of Tubman, part mystic, intensely prctical, Tyson gives a brilliant performance equal to her memorable evocation of Miss Jane Pittman.
She is girlishly shy, irascibly stubborn, lyrically tender or agonizingly pained -- but always mindful of her cause. Tyson, who won an Emmy for Miss Jane Pittman and seems determined to play the full spectrum of black heroines, marvelously constructs a moving character of fascinating complexity.
Sometimes she conveys much with little, as in the look of wonderment when she stares at the coins she's saving to buy her freedom or the mocking puffed-up imitation she does of her master following a fake fainting spell.
The drama itself contains many subtle shadings and manages to avoid the stereotypes of all-evil whites and allsaintly blacks.
As a slave, Tubman marries a freedman John Tubman (smoothly portrayed by Dick Anthony Williams), half-white and footloose. But he's strangely attracted to this quiet, determined woman. And she responds in some of the film's most tender moments.
But the marriage is short-lived. He secretly squanders her "freedom money" and they break up.
Tubman's master is portrayed as a man who admires her incentive and allows her to work a plot of land and keep the harvest profits. But he shows his true character in the end by humiliating her. He forces her to put on a mule harness and drag a loaded wagon to the point of collapse as the gentry laughs and cheers from an overlooking slope.
The breakup of stereotypes extends to a slave named Shadrack, the thorniest problem in Tubman's side during her last trip. Always seeking ways to discredit her or usurp her power, Shadrack is what many Afro-Americans call "a crazy Negro," that is, a black who, in irrational ways, will put her personal aggrandizement over group safety.
The drama is solidly based on an excellent novel (of the same title) by Marcy Heidish. Screenplay writer Lonnie Elder III said it was easy writing the drama. Indeed, he used much of the novel's dialogue.
However, he may have erred in allowing detective Andrew Coleman, pursuer of Tubman for several years, simply to walk away when he finally encounters her. He doesn't try to capture her because he has come to admire her. Elder doesn't build Coleman as a character enough for us to accept such a surprising action.
The drama is burdened with Orson Welles' narration, which sounds like pronouncements from the Almighty Himself.
Because the movie was shot on location in California and Louisiana, the Chance for fully depicting the harsh winter during Tubman's last trip was lost.
Also, we never see Tubman experience any foundation-shaking self-doubt about the value of her efforts. In the novel, after meeting John Brown, the fire-breathing white opponent of slavery, she was moved to ask herself if his grand design for epding slavery was not more significant than her own piecemeal efforts. In the TV movie, we don't see the reflective side of Harriet Tubman.
This missing element, however, is more than compensated for by the compelling simplicity of Tubman's just and human mission -- and Tyson's powerful portrayal of this great historical character.
Reliving Tubman's escape from slavery in 1849, Tyson is helped along the way be Thomas Garrett (warmly played by the late Will Geer, of "The Waltons," in his final television performance). Searching deyond the mundane, he asked what kept her spirit alive during the hard trip.
"I reasoned that as a slave I had no right to lefe," she answered, gulping a sliver of food. "But then I reasoned I did have the right to die. And I had the right to try and go free. I was going to have one or the other."