Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African-American to file and win a freedom suit in the state of Massachusetts, will finally have her story told.
Octavia Spencer has been in the movie-making business since the mid-1990s and only recently hit mainstream success nearly 20 years later in Tate Taylor’s The Help. Her phenomenal performance even netted her an Academy Award. Since then, Spencer has made her voice and presence on screen not only known, but more often than not, she steals the show, especially when it comes to portraying hidden figures.
That is obviously a direct reference to the eponymous film that she starred in with Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae back in 2016. It’s also a practice that Spencer continues to carry forward; not only with the roles she chooses for herself, but through the stories she champions even when she’s not in front of the camera.
Variety announced that Spencer will be producing an independent film about another hidden figure in history, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. The film, simply titled Mumbet, will be based on “A Free Woman on God’s Earth” by Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes. The book tracks Freeman’s narrative as an enslaved African-American woman living during Revolutionary War times in Massachusetts and the series of events that lead up to her filing a freedom suit based on the newly ratified State Constitution; specifically the words “All men are created free and equal.” Freeman won the suit, and in 1781 became a free woman when slavery was found to be inconsistent with the State Constitution by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Although no casting details for Mumbet have yet been announced, Variety notes that Alethea Root (Part Time Fabulous) will serve as director from a script by Stephen Glantz (Wunderkinder). According to Root:
“This is a woman who risked her life to speak truth to injustice. The power of truth is paramount and the time is ripe for the world to be inspired and moved by Mumbet’s story.”
Freeman’s story hasn’t been adapted for the screen before, despite her having such a key role in ascertaining civil liberties for African-Americans in her state. An educational television series, Liberty’s Kids, did dedicate an episode to her story. However, there is no better time than the present — especially amidst the ever-vital Black Lives Matter movement — to bring Freeman to the masses in Mumbet.
The ugly fact of slavery affects historical narratives in the west in multitudinous ways, but very rarely have women’s stories been directly told through their perspectives on film. In recent years (discounting re-imaginings like Django Unchained), 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation gave us two particularly salient films based on slave rebellion and liberation. Although these movies focus on the respective stories of enslaved black men, they do also feature enslaved women and chronicle the horrors and dehumanization they experience to varying degrees. 12 Years a Slave is a brutal but essential portrait of what enslaved women endured; The Birth of a Nation is more problematically prudent about that fact.
The proactivity that accompanies Freeman’s story would definitely provide a considerable counterpoint for such portrayals, especially as there are so few women-focused films about slavery. A Woman Called Moses is a miniseries from the 1970s that chronicles the life of the iconic Harriet Tubman while a film about her is also in development. Now, Mumbet joins the ranks of such essential historical adaptations, aiding in the process of shaping an even more powerful narrative to African-American history.
Spencer’s involvement in Mumbet echoes Michael B. Jordan’s in The Liberators (which was announced in March). These films are primed to prioritize vital, oft-overlooked perspectives. Big names like Jordan’s and now Spencer’s don’t just get such movies off the ground — they inspire elevated interest from the general public.
Spencer’s career is as varied and as exciting as the best actors of today. She dabbles in films of all genres and budgets, showing her versatility and strength as an actor. Her producing credits, which include Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (which stars Jordan) and the well-received 2017 thriller Small Town Crime, additionally showcase a keen eye for good stories, making Mumbet a very exciting project to look out for.