“Harriet Tubman was a one-person Seal Team 6,” says Travis Mitchell, Maryland Public Television’s senior vice president and chief content officer.
In October, PBS will air two documentaries about Tubman and fellow Maryland-born abolitionist Frederick Douglass, co-produced by Maryland Public Television and Firelight Films. This year marks the 200-year anniversary of Tubman’s birth.
The films, “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” and “Becoming Frederick Douglass,” offer fresh and intimate portraits of Tubman and Douglass, two of Maryland’s — and the nation’s — most influential historical figures.
“If there was no Tubman, no Douglass, there would be no President Obama, no me. It’s that real,” Mitchell says.
The documentaries were directed by Stanley Nelson and Nicole London.
A recipient of the 2013 National Humanities Medal, Nelson has produced 26 movies about activism and injustice in America. According to a New Yorker profile, “his prize-winning documentaries … collectively tell the story of African American life in the twentieth century.”
London and Nelson shared a 2020 Grammy nomination for “Best Music Film” for their documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.”
The narratives of Douglass and Tubman’s lives reveal to viewers the unique and crucial role Maryland played in the Civil War and in the wider struggles for emancipation and equality. The two abolitionists came from neighboring counties in eastern Maryland — Dorchester and Talbot County, respectively.
The filmmakers’ vision of Tubman’s role goes beyond what many learned in 8th grade history class. Viewers learn that Tubman’s story doesn’t end at the Underground Railroad.
“[Tubman] was operating as a spy for the Union Army and ultimately led and executed successful raids,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell adds that Tubman was an active strategist in the Civil War, and “her career as a humanitarian really begins after the war,” says Mitchell. The film also covers her post-war suffrage efforts and friendship with Susan B. Anthony in the 1890s.
The Douglass documentary also depicts the unprecedented debates between Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.
“Had it not been for [Douglass’] insistence and pressure, Lincoln may not have come out on the right side of history,” Mitchell says.
Alongside insights from historians and archival imagery, actor Wendell Pierce voices Douglass, reading excerpts from Douglass’ famous speeches and autobiographies.
The Tubman and Douglass documentaries are part of Maryland Public Television’s Standing Against Racism initiative. The network aims to continue partnering with PBS to tell the stories of historical Maryland icons.
Maryland Public Television will hold film screenings and town hall meetings at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, 41 HBCUs, and 23 other colleges and universities across 21 states, where attendees will have a chance to participate in round-table discussions with the producers and, in some cases, the historians featured in the films.
A robust website, designed to accompany the movies and facilitate dialogue on race and history, is slated to release in early September. The site will provide educational content, materials, and lesson plans to school systems across the country.
Mitchell feels a deep personal connection to the themes of the two films.
“They are a potent reminder that if I want my daughter to grow up in the freest nation on earth, I have to make sacrifices,” he says. “When I see injustice, when I see threats to democracy, I have to stand for, and speak for, what is right. The films are incredible at illustrating to us just how delicate our freedom and democracy is.”
PBS will air “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” nationally at 10 p.m. on Oct. 4, and “Becoming Frederick Douglass” at 10 p.m. on Oct. 11. On MPT, the films will air at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on each date, and be available for streaming on mpt.org.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify when and where to watch the documentaries, and where to attend film screenings and town hall meetings.