The news on Wednesday that Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill brought praise from Civil War historians and renewed attention to criticisms that suggest it obscures inequality to put Tubman and other women on money. The design for the bill isn’t final and likely won’t be unveiled until 2020, when it’s rolled out as part of a wider currency redesign.
But whatever the new $20 bill ultimately looks like, there’s something striking about the fact that it has been more than a decade since the release of a major biography of Tubman, and almost 40 years since Tubman was the subject of a significant film or television project. In fact, recent pop culture depictions of Tubman have ranged from punch lines to the outright bizarre; it’s as if people know enough about Tubman to make her an icon or a reference point, but not enough to make her a subject of genuine fascination.
You have to go back to 1978 to find a full-length treatment of Tubman’s life, when Cicely Tyson and Jean Foster played Tubman at different points in her life in the two-part (and unfortunately treacly) NBC miniseries “A Woman Called Moses.” Alfre Woodard played Tubman twice in the 1990s, once in a larger project about the Underground Railroad, and a second time in a children’s show. CCH Pounder portrayed Tubman in the satire show “Histeria!”
More recently, Tubman got pulled into the debate over respectability politics in the short film “Harriet Returns,” which pits a time-traveling Tubman — I wish I was kidding — against the menace of sagging pants and casual use of derivations of the n-word. And after that, things get really surreal.
Def Jam founder Russell Simmons found himself the target of a wave of criticism in 2013 when he launched a new YouTube comedy channel with a Harriet Tubman sex tape. That’s not an exaggeration: The video was literally called “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” and featured Tubman employing sexual wiles to distract her owner from her work on the Underground Railroad. Simmons said he saw the piece as a commentary on Tubman’s cleverness, but pulled it after an outcry.
Less controversially, in the first season of Kenya Barris’s family comedy “black-ish,” father Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) gets on his high horse when he starts making minor contributions around the house, convinced that he’s the best parent of all time. But when another father starts getting credit, Andre feels jealous and hurt, and in an effort to reassert his awesomeness, ends up in a shouting match with a Harriet Tubman impersonator.
And in the final season of “30 Rock,” Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) hallucinates a version of Tubman, played by his boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who “dreamed of being the first woman to surf around the world,” manages to make eating corn look salacious and calls Tracy “homie.” Tracy ultimately decides to green-light a Tubman biopic because “it’s the most irresponsible choice I could make! A super-expensive period piece? Starring a middle-aged woman? No one’s going to want to see it!”
Even when pop culture has taken Tubman’s accomplishments seriously, it has walked a skewed path to celebrate her. Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) is one of the historical figures who make a cameo in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s alternate history, in which the 16th president battles not just the Confederacy, but also the undead. Octavia Spencer plays Tubman in a 2015 episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History “– which offers tipsy but technically accurate summaries of the past — that explores Tubman’s work as a Union spy during the Civil War.
A number of small independent movies have taken stabs at Tubman. But the biggest potential take on the Underground Railroad conductor and Union spy comes from a potentially unexpected quarter: Last year, “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin teamed up with Viola Davis and “John Adams” writer Kirk Ellis to adapt Kate Clifford Larson’s Tubman biography “Bound for the Promised Land” for HBO Films.
When I reached Ellin yesterday, he told me that Ellis was at work on the script and that he hoped they would be able to shoot the movie during one of Davis’s hiatuses from “How to Get Away With Murder.” Ellin fell in love with Larson’s book when he read it and was taken aback at how little the people he talked to seemed to know about Tubman, who he believes should be an internationally recognized figure.
“I don’t think people know how many times she went back, and how many times she kept trying to save people. She really didn’t get the credit during her life that she deserved. Some people felt that she didn’t do them a favor at the time. She was so ahead of the time, and she was so brave and aggressive,” Ellin told me when we spoke on the phone. “And she kept going back when she had her freedom and she didn’t have to.”
If Tubman seems like a change of subject for Ellin, he hopes viewers won’t prejudge the movie.
“I don’t want people to think that the guy who brought you ‘Entourage’ is bringing you the Harriet Tubman movie. Kirk Ellis is one of the best writers around. Viola Davis was my dream to play it,” he said. “I am really the shepherd to make this movie go. I’m not the voice of it. … There’s no money in it for me. There’s no anything except I feel like it’s an important thing.”