At Last, Harriet Tubman Strides Onto Our Screens The legendary abolitionist hasn't had a big place in popular culture. But with an upcoming movie starring Viola Davis and her appearance in the TV show Underground, that's starting to change.
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At Last, Harriet Tubman Strides Onto Our Screens

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At Last, Harriet Tubman Strides Onto Our Screens

At Last, Harriet Tubman Strides Onto Our Screens

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Underground Railroad has been on America's mind this year. It was the backdrop of a novel called "The Underground Railroad" that won this year's National Book Award in fiction. And it was the setting for "Underground," an acclaimed new television drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL: (As Rosalee) We have to go now.

ALDIS HODGE: (As Noah) No, we can't. We got to plan.

GREENE: The upcoming second season adds a new character, and she's based on a real historical figure whose story has been under-represented in movies and television. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "Underground" is filled with wild chases and captures.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Wanted - seven escaped slaves.

ULABY: Seven runaways flee a Georgia plantation in 1857 through a treacherous world filled with slave owners double-crossing slave catchers, slave catchers double-crossing abolitionists and enslaved people double-crossing each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I trusted you. Now my family's torn apart. They got my Pearly Mae. They got her.

ULABY: The first season ends with one of the show's main characters, a runaway maid trying to save her friends, meeting a new character - a dark-skinned woman wielding a rifle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

AISHA HINDS: (As Harriet Tubman) They said you was looking to steal slaves.

SMOLLETT-BELL: (As Rosalee) Can't steal something that ain't property in the first place.

HUNDS: (As Harriet Tubman) Well, I aim to teach you how. Name's Harriet.

ULABY: Harriet Tubman.

VERONICA WELLS: Oh, my god. Oh, my god.

ULABY: Veronica Wells, culture editor of the website MadameNoire is one of the millions of "Underground" fans so excited about the new Harriet Tubman character. She can't stop saying how excited she is.

WELLS: I'm so excited. I'm so excited about Harriet Tubman because she doesn't play. She doesn't take any mass.

ULABY: Harriet Tubman helped more than a hundred people find freedom a decade before the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDERGROUND")

HUNDS: (As Harriet Tubman) The lord sent you to me to get your family back.

ULABY: But until now, this intensely dramatic character has barely been featured on screen, besides a miniseries from 1978, "A Woman Called Moses," starring Cicely Tyson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A WOMAN CALLED MOSES")

CICELY TYSON: (As Harriet Tubman) I will lead my people out of bondage, Lord.

ULABY: No surprise, says MadameNoire editor Veronica Wells.

WELLS: She's a black woman, and there haven't been a lot of stories for black women of any time period.

ULABY: And that's why Wells is excited to see more of Harriet Tubman on the future $20 bill and an upcoming movie starring Viola Davis. On the WGAN show "Underground," Tubman is played by actress Aisha Hinds. When she first stepped on set, Hines, a seasoned theater professional, burst into tears even.

HUNDS: Even - oh, my God. Even - I get so emotional about it.

ULABY: Hinds did her research and learned Harriet Tubman's nearly superhuman courage came from her total confidence that God was advising her and listening to her.

HUNDS: Trying to dig deep for that level of faith just completely broke me. You know, I felt unworthy. I felt incapable of really, truly honoring the story that she had to tell.

ULABY: So to play an icon, Hinds searched for smaller truths to make Tubman human.

HUNDS: How does she peel potatoes in the kitchen? You know, just simple things that you forget to remember about a person.

ULABY: Actress Aisha Hinds believes there's a reason why Harriet Tubman's story feels so relevant right now.

HUNDS: I think we're in a time that calls for that level of courage, that level of resolve - you know, to be completely disgusted with injustice to the point that you will have to take some huge leaps of faith. And it may take one person leading many.

ULABY: When the real Harriet Tubman died in 1913, it was in a home for African-American seniors she'd established years earlier. Her final words - I go to prepare a place for you. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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