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Viola Davis on Harriet Tubman movie: 'I feel like it's our time'

Tubman will soon grace the $20 bill, and is the subject of two upcoming projects. But why has Hollywood dragged its feet in the past?

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Freedom fighter Harriet Tubman is finally getting some long-deserved recognition. On April 20, the Treasury Department announced the 19th century abolitionist would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, making her the first woman in more than a century to grace a U.S. bill. The news comes just seven months after Viola Davis brought the American hero back into the public consciousness by quoting her during her historic Emmy acceptance speech — a move that coincides with her lengthy efforts to bring Tubman’s story to the screen.

Tubman — who is best known for freeing scores of slaves through the Underground Railroad and serving as a spy in the Civil War — has long been featured in the pages of elementary-school textbooks, but to date, only one 1978 TV movie, starring Cicely Tyson, has told her story. Why exactly has Hollywood been so slow to immortalize America’s first militia woman on the big screen?

“It’s a big curious thing, and it’s the big question I’ve had all along,” says Kate Clifford Larson, the author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman — Portrait of an American Hero, which screenwriter Kirk Ellis (John Adams) is in the process of adapting for HBO, with Davis slated to star. “My opinion is since we all learned about her as kids, she’s [thought of as] this juvenile, one-dimensional character that was better suited for cartoons than as a serious treatment of a blood-and-flesh woman.”

Davis, who along with husband Julius Tennon struggled for years to get Tubman’s story into theaters, has her own theory. “The reason her life has not been honored, the reason people don’t know what she contributed, is because she’s a black woman,” says Davis. “She was born a slave. If you look up the history of anyone who contributed to the country who were not white males, their contributions are always minimized.”

Over the years, Davis says, she was often told that black female protagonists don’t sell overseas, that white audiences wouldn’t see the film, that there are too few prominent white characters in Tubman’s narrative to make it a sound financial investment. “It became obvious that we had to go a different route,” Davis says. That route was HBO. 

Now Entourage producer Doug Ellin and Davis are awaiting Ellis’ second script draft before finding a director to shoot next year. Ellin is adamant it won’t be him.

“This is not the guy from Entourage bringing you the Harriet Tubman story,” Ellin says. “I’m simply shepherding it. I found what I thought was the best actor in the world to play this role and an amazing writer to write it.”

Though Davis wasn’t able to get Tubman to the big screen, another set of producers announced Monday their intention to do just that. Producer/financier Charles King, who is currently financing Davis’ upcoming film Fences with Denzel Washington, has partnered with the producers of Beasts of No Nation and Debra Martin Chase (Sparkle) on a film project titled Harriet, that will be directed by television helmer Seith Mann (Homeland) from a script by Gregory Allen Howard (Ali, Remember the Titans.

King promises the film, which he’s been working on developing for over a year, won’t be your traditional biopic. “This will have action, adventure. It will be epic and sweeping,” he says. “This will show what an incredible badass Harriet Tubman was.”

And he’s confident that movies like Harriet will help soften the resistance financiers and studios often show to movies featuring non-white protagonists. “There is something to be said about movies that have universal themes that everyone can relate to. Harriet was a hero, a warrior, she was fearless, she was a leader and that has nothing to do with race. She is someone I believe — on a domestic and global level — people are going to relate to.”

Davis certainly agrees.

“I feel like it’s our time,” she says. “I think that women, people of color, have been sitting on the sidelines, on the periphery of classic storytelling, for too long. We have stories too. It’s like what Harriet said: ‘I would have freed more slaves, if only they had known they were slaves.’”

A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1413, on newsstands now.