Harriet offers an action movie take on abolitionist Harriet Tubman — and these Canadians are here for it

A new movie is bringing Harriet Tubman — the Underground Railroad's most famous conductor — to the big screen as a steel-willed young heroine in an action-packed story. And the tale has a special resonance in the Canadian city the famed abolitionist once called home.

'Canada was the gateway to freedom... Otherwise, Tubman wouldn't have been here,' says historian

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman, the former slave-turned-famed abolitionist, in a scene from the Focus Features film Harriet. (Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

The new movie bringing Harriet Tubman — the Underground Railroad's most famous conductor — to the big screen offers a different portrait of the celebrated figure than the stately image typically depicted in American history. And its tale of a steel-willed young heroine in an action-packed story has a special resonance in the Canadian city the famed anti-slavery activist once called home.

"We think of Harriet Tubman [and] we think of the old woman in the chair, right? But Harriet Tubman was doing this work when she was in her 20s and it's really an incredibly marvellous thing to think about: a young woman who has this kind of agency," director Kasi Lemmons said of Harriet, her new film hitting theatres this weekend.

Harriet is the first ever feature-length film about the heroic American figure.

Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, from left, is seen directing Harriet cast members Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway. The historical tale is the first-ever feature film about Tubman. (Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

"It's really about what can be accomplished with sheer force of will — that's what I want people to come away with," Lemmons said earlier this fall, when Harriet debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"If your courage outweighs your fear and you have a strong will to do something, you can do anything."

A shared history

Just a few years after Maryland-born Tubman made her astonishing 1849 escape from slavery, she established herself in St. Catharines, Ont. There, she worshipped at Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church.

Current members of the congregation, including church historian Rochelle Bush, were among those who got a sneak peek at the Harriet film earlier this month.

"I'm glad she's being put forth so that a broader audience will know her history," said Bush, who also serves as a Salem Chapel trustee. 

"She's militant, she's selfless, she's a loving individual and, of course, she's a master of disguise and illusion ... and we're glad they're connecting Harriet Tubman to St. Catharines, because generally that's not done in American productions."

During her time living in St. Catharines, Ont., Tubman worshipped at Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, which continues to draw visitors to this day, says Rochelle Bush, church trustee and historian. (CBC)

The Niagara region city was a terminus on the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of paths and safe houses that allowed slaves to flee the American South beginning in the late 18th century. After the U.S. passed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which went further than earlier laws to endanger runaway slaves, many aimed for Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction completely.

Tubman was among those who came north of the border, living in St. Catharines between 1851 and 1861. She eventually returned stateside and joined the Union Army for the American Civil War, where she was the first woman to lead an armed assault.

During Tubman's time in Canada, she juggled different jobs, according to Bush. They included running a boarding house, chopping wood for the local timber industry and, most famously, earning the biblical nickname Moses for her repeated return missions south to lead slaves to freedom.

Beyond a place of worship, Salem Chapel was also a meeting house for abolitionists, according Bush. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Salem Chapel, built by black freedom-seekers and dedicated on Nov. 4, 1855, "wasn't just a place of worship. It was a meeting house," Bush said.

"If Tubman wasn't here worshipping the Lord, we know that she was here during the conversations [about how to overthrow slavery], which was the number one question for abolitionists throughout Canada as well as the United States."

Far from being strictly an American story, "this was our history," Bush said. "Canada was the gateway to freedom."

The country, then still a British colony, had officially abolished slavery in August 1834 — the reason why Tubman and so many others chose Canada.

"We need to embrace that and celebrate it," she said. "Otherwise, Tubman wouldn't have been here. It's a shared history. Black people as well as white people opened that gateway."

Seeing that shared history depicted in the new Harriet film has whet the historian's appetite. Despite some qualms about timeline liberties and the invention of certain characters, Bush says she enjoyed seeing some of Tubman's remarkable achievements depicted on-screen — but she's eager for more.

"You can't put Tubman's life story into a two-hour film. She's deserving of a miniseries... [one] that definitely identifies freedom-seekers crossing the border into Canada."

'Like going back in time'

Just a few minutes away from Salem Chapel, there's another group also excited about the new film: students and faculty at Harriet Tubman Public School.

A nearly life-sized statue of Tubman sits on display in front of the newly built elementary school. Its library features a healthy collection of books about the American activist for different age groups and its students are known as North Stars — a reference to the star that many slaves followed north to freedom.

A statue of Harriet Tubman sits outside her namesake school, which opened in 2015 in St. Catharines. (Jessica Wong/CBC)

The trailer for the new movie, which stars award-winning British actor and singer Cynthia Erivo, "it really looks like" the Harriet Tubman storyline the students have learned about, said third-grader Sabina Guadalupe Ruiz Esparza Ceron.

"It's like going back in time," she said.

The movie footage brings the historical figure to life, said seventh-grader Madelyn Cary.

"It was crazy how much that resembled what I actually thought, what I thought of what happened," she said.

The Harriet Tubman Public School library offers a solid collection of books about Tubman. Third-graders Kaylynn Cadogan, from left, Sabina Guadalupe Ruiz Esparza Ceron, Moyosore Soji-Cole and seventh-graders Madelyn Cary and Mariyha Martin-Graham show a selection. (Jessica Wong/CBC )

Mariyha Martin-Graham, also in seventh grade, said she's proud to attend a school named after Tubman.

"Some people think that men are stronger than women, but Harriet Tubman was one of the most powerful women I know out there. She basically saved as many lives as she could — and she didn't have to do that," said Martin-Graham.

To be able to connect students with an inspirational hero who actually lived in their community — "someone of integrity, someone of strength and bravery" — is really special for educators, said Liz Bonisteel, the school's teacher librarian.

"Through Harriet's story, [students] can see a real person who accomplished amazing things," said Bonisteel, who also attended the preview screening.

Learning about a real-life inspiration like Tubman can inspire students and challenge them to continue fighting against injustice today, says Liz Bonisteel, teacher librarian at Harriet Tubman Public School in St. Catharines. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Learning about Tubman can help challenge kids to continue fighting against racism, discrimination and injustice that they encounter today, she said.

"The generation that we're raising here in the school, they're going to have to be brave. They're going to have to be people that problem solve and do what everyone tells them is impossible ... so we still need to hear these stories of people that face impossible odds."

With files from Tashauna Reid and Alice Hopton