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Why 'Harriet' doesn't mention the $20 bill

Lemmons told Variety that in one draft of “Harriet,” Tubman-on-the-$20 was indeed the film’s kicker but she chose to end with Tubman's famous final words instead.
Image: Harriet
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in "Harriet."Glen Wilson / Focus Features

In “Harriet,” directed and co-written by Kasi Lemmons, Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery, joined the Underground Railroad and then freed more than 70 people from slavery. (Spoilers about the movie ahead.) Though Tubman died in 1913 at age 91, the movie ends during the Civil War, with Tubman leading a troop of black soldiers for the Union Army.

A chyron then appears that reads:

Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading over 70 slaves to freedom.

During the Civil War, Harriet became a spy for the Union Army.

She led 150 black soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, freeing over 750 slaves.

Harriet remains one of the few women in U.S. history to lead an armed expedition.

She later remarried and dedicated her life to helping freed slaves, the elderly and Women’s Suffrage.

She died surrounded by loved ones on March 10, 1913, at approximately 91 years of age.

Her last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Tubman’s accomplishments are, of course, hard to summarize. But audience members might well wonder why Lemmons didn’t end “Harriet” by mentioning that someday — though not in 2020 as originally scheduled — Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

Lemmons told Variety that in one draft of “Harriet,” Tubman-on-the-$20 was indeed the film’s kicker. But she chose to end with her famous final words instead.

“We chose the words carefully, and there was a message there. And it was a message of leadership and deep spirituality, and beauty and grace that went with her to the very last words of her life,” Lemmons says. “I mean, I think that’s just incredibly beautiful. And a beautiful way to to sum up her life, you know?”

During the Obama administration, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew decided that Tubman’s image would replace Jackson’s on the $20 in 2020. It would mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

But earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the bills need new security features, and won’t be ready until 2026 at the earliest. Jackson, who owned slaves, happens to be Donald Trump’s favorite president, and during Trump’s campaign, he called the switch to Tubman’s image “pure political correctness.”

“Harriet” faced a difficult journey to the screen, but producers Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg always believed that the film would succeed with audiences. Focus Features, which eventually signed on to make the movie, told Variety before its release that the company was “bullish” on its prospects, citing extremely strong testing.

That confidence has borne out. Through two weekends of release, “Harriet” has been a box office success, collecting more than $23 million across 2,186 screens.

In that same spirit, Lemmons isn’t worried that the delay of Tubman on the $20 is permanent.

“I think it’s inevitable,” she says with a confident laugh. “I think it’s been postponed for various reasons. But I think it’s happening.”