Hard as it may be to believe, Harriet is the first feature film about freedom fighter Harriet Tubman.
Kasi Lemmons' movie about the Underground Railroad leader premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival where festival director Cameron Bailey, introducing the film, noted the cinematic injustice of Tubman only now making it to the big screen.
"There are 30 films about General Custer," said Bailey. "This is the first film about Harriet Tubman."
Harriet, starring 32-year-old British actress Cynthia Erivo, presents a younger, more vibrant picture of Tubman, whose accomplishments have often been entombed in American middle-school history books.
And the best-known appearance of Tubman, who was in her late 20s when she escaped from slavery and began going back South to help others to freedom, has largely been of her as an older woman.
"There are pictures of her that have been painted from the wrong time period almost," said Erivo, the Tony-winning actress of the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. "It's important to know this was a really young woman who took a lot of risk in what she was doing."
Tubman, whose original name was Araminta Ross, was born into slavery in 1820 or 1821 in Maryland. In 1849, she fled to Philadelphia, after which a reward for her recapture was posted. But Tubman returned to the South to lead other slaves to freedom, conducting more than 70 people through the Underground Railroad network of abolitionists.
I really thought about this as a task I took very solemnly of bringing Harriet to life so that young girls could see this young woman heroine.
focuses on her escape from Maryland and, a year later, her returning raids.
"When we think of Harriet, we kind of don't see her womanhood. That's partly because in the pictures we have of her, she's an older woman," said Lemmons.
"There's a picture found fairly recently of Harriet as a young woman, and that was my inspiration."
Earlier this year, that previously unknown photograph of a more youthful Tubman, believed to be taken in the 1860s, was put on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Lemmons believes the production was guided spiritually by Tubman.
"I really thought about this as a task I took very solemnly of bringing Harriet to life so that young girls could see this young woman heroine, and that the world could see her as this fierce, strong, feminine presence that she was."