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Virginia locales serve as backdrop to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman

Virginia locales serve as backdrop to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman

A biographical movie about the life of famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is set to hit theaters on November 1.

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Virginia locales serve as backdrop to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman
Director Kasi Lemmons with actors Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway on the set of her film HARRIET, a Focus Features release. Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features

by Jackie Nunnery

A biographical movie about the life of famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman is set to hit theaters on November 1. The movie, written by Gregory Allen Howard and directed by Kasi Lemmons, stars Cynthia Erivo in the title role.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” – Harriet Tubman

Tubman’s life was bigger than what can be shown in a two-hour movie or written in a few paragraphs. She was born Araminta “Minty” Ross in Dorchester County, Md., around 1820 and because she was born into slavery, little would be recorded of her birth or childhood and family lore offers sometimes conflicting accounts.

Tubman recounted to biographers later in life how the death of her then-owner and the fear of her impending sale as a result, prompted her to flee and avoid the unknown fate of two sisters, who had been hauled away and sold south.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other,” Tubman said of her choice to risk the journey north.

Virginia locales serve as backdrop to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman
Cynthia Erivo stars in the title role as Harriet Tubman.
Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features

In 1849, Tubman, “crossed over” into the freedom of Philadelphia, leaving behind her husband, John Tubman, parents and siblings. To protect her identity and establish a new start, Tubman assumed a new name, Harriet, after her mother.

Tubman would make the perilous trip into Maryland an additional 19 times over the next decade, delivering family members and others into freedom and never losing a single “passenger.” Later, during the Civil War, she would be indispensable to the cause as a nurse, scout and spy.

Although historically, the events in the film do not take place in Virginia, sharp-eyed viewers may spot familiar locations since many scenes were filmed in parts of Petersburg, Powhatan and Cumberland counties, and in the Middle Peninsula’s Mathews County. Most of the filming took place in fall and winter of 2018 and included Williams Wharf Landing in Mathews as a stand-in for a wharf in Philadelphia. The schooner Alliance was brought from its nearby home port in Yorktown for inclusion in the movie.

Over 300 cast and crew members came to Mathews for a weekend of filming.

The wharf is a waterfront park with natural, expansive views of the East River and Chesapeake Bay. Because the property is in a land conservancy, development has been limited, which is why it is a perfect stand-in for the 1800s, when the film takes place, said Becky Beckstoffer, a former location scout who used to work with film production companies looking to shoot in Virginia. It was her job to find local settings “that worked for the story and vision of the director.”

The land at Williams Wharf has nearly always been a working waterfront. In addition to being the ancestral home of the Kiskiak tribe, members of the Powhatan Confederacy, it was a popular storage and transportation center for tobacco as the Europeans settled in the area. During the steamboat era, it was a popular docking point, and even later still, a hub for seafood, and finally, oil.

Virginia locales serve as backdrop to the incredible story of Harriet Tubman
The fall release of Harriet Tubman’s story was filmed at many Virginia locations. Courtesy of Focus Features

With the creation of the Mathews Land Conservancy and its ownership of the property, Williams Wharf provides public access to the bay with the addition of the home of the Owens Maritime Education and Rowing Center, a maritime education and rowing facility.

The Virginia Film Office’s website shows Williams Wharf as just one of thousands of locations available in Virginia for film and television production. Film production companies are increasingly choosing Virginia due to “the diversity of topography and architecture” that provides a wide palette for directors to choose from, said Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office. And while Virginia certainly has its “strengths in great historical architecture,” according to Edmunds, there are many contemporary productions that have chosen Virginia to make their temporary home here, like season seven of Homeland and a spin-off of the Walking Dead franchise.

In 2017, which are the latest figures available, film and television production within the Commonwealth had an economic impact of $862 million, with the creation of 5,201 jobs, and the generation of $33.9 million in state and local taxes.

There are many ways to get involved, but the first step is to check out the “For Virginians” and “Hotline” pages at film.virginia.org.