Harriet Tubman was one of the most courageous American heroes, so it’s about time Hollywood released a major studio film about her life. But in the process of telling Tubman's story in the new biopic Harriet, a few new characters come into play. Cynthia Erivo's Underground Railroad conductor works with a few helpers along the way including William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). Still was a real person, and his depiction in the movie is pretty true to life, but Monae’s character Marie is actually completely fictionalized for the film. However, the makers of Harriet had a good reason for fictionalizing one of the most inspiring stories in history.
We meet Marie, a woman born free in the North, about halfway into Harriet. She operates an inn that doubles as a place to help escaped slaves that are ushered into free society by Still. Marie takes Harriet in and teaches her to dress and act like a free woman and helps her find a job. During one pivotal, heart wrenching moment in the movie, Marie plays a huge role in protecting Harriet from bounty hunters spurred on by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed them to take slaves back to the South. It's enough to make a person hop on the internet to learn about the real woman behind the heroic character, but as it turns out, she's merely a representation of the sorts of people who helped Tubman with her work.
In an interview with Out Magazine, Monáe spoke about creating Marie for Harriet. Her character is “an amalgamation of historical figures and the women who did help women like Harriet come to the North and make a better life for themselves.” Monáe views her character as someone who used her privileged position as a free Black woman to convey the message that one person is not free until everyone is free.
"I wanted people to feel with this movie and with my character in particular, to just understand what we, as women, as allies of each other, have to go through to protect each other,” she added.
Like the film shows, the Underground Railroad was made up of pathways through barns, churches, homes, and businesses, and among those locations were many safehouses, like Marie's, according to National Geographic. These safe houses, also called stations and depots, are similar to the inn Buchanon runs in the movie. There were also many free Black people, like John Parker, who used their resources to help fugitives escape.
In real life, two of Tubman’s known collaborators aside from Still were writer Frederick Douglass and abolitionist John Brown. According to History.com, Douglass would hide people in his Rochester, New York home and eventually lead them to Canada.
While it may be disappointing to see that the heroic Marie Buchanon isn’t a real person, in a way, that's only half true. Her inclusion in Harriet serves as a representation of all the numerous brave men and women who worked as conductors and ran safe houses to protect former slaves. So, if you think about it, Marie is kind of real: She's just several incredible people who changed the world, all rolled into one.