Is It Too Soon For A Bio-Pic Of Harriet Tubman?

About two weeks ago I began seeing ads on TV for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming bio-pic of Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln, which sounds about right, since bio-pics are usually mediocre at best, often only elevated by the performance of the star. And Daniel Day-Lewis is always Oscar bait. The film won’t be released until after the election, which makes sense from an artistic point of view as Spielberg would probably rather not have people read too much into what is going on today while viewing his homage to our greatest president.
Spielberg did an interview on “60 Minutes” the other night in which he revealed very little about the film, but a lot about his relationship with his father (yawn). I hadn’t watched “60 Minutes” in years, but made a point of seeing it because I was curious as to what he would say about the film. What I learned is that he spent 12 years doing research for the film, it takes place during the last four months of Lincoln’s life, and there is very little action, but lots of talking. As Spielberg said, “I can do action in my sleep… The action doesn’t interest me… It (this film) is like a play.”
I’m curious about the film, if it gets decent reviews I will probably go see it. But it got me thinking about other figures in U.S. history who not only deserve to be revered in a big, Hollywood bio-pic, but whose lives would make for excellent films, with lots of meaningful action. Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Nat Turner are the first to come to mind.
It’s no mystery why there hasn’t been a film based on Tubman’s life – if she had been white her face would be on our money, and America would be littered with towns, schools, and airports named after her. I’m not sure who would play the role of Harriet, but I figure if Spielberg can make “Amistad,” why not “Tubman”?
Nat Turner would also make an excellent bio-pic, the script could be adapted from William Styron’s remarkable novel, “Confessions Of Nat Turner.” The novel moves very quickly and is difficult to put down. I read it a few years ago and it affected me so deeply I avoided reading anything else for at least a week because I didn’t want to pollute the experience. So why no film? I’m sure there are several actors who would love to play Nat Turner.
As for John Brown, you’d think that would have happened already, since he was white, and as Paul Mooney points out, Hollywood loves to cast white men in roles made for swarthy people. But John Brown crumbles a bit under closer scrutiny, as he wanted to free the slaves more for religious principles than out of any real feeling of humanitarian outrage or sense of simple fairness. Plus John Brown was branded a terrorist in his time, which would make things very problematic in a big screen feature today. I suppose you could count on Hollywood to edit the problems out of the script and end up making a very morally black and white (if you’ll forgive me) film.
In any case, American history is rich with compelling, instructive stories that you would think Hollywood would be dying to make and people would love to see, but it’s not happening. And in most cases there is only one reason. What does it say about us that we can have a half-black president but nobody is willing to roll the dice on making an important and thrilling film about one of our most important and courageous historical figures?
Who do you think would make for a great bio-pic, and who would play the lead?


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