A grade-school fascination with Harriet Tubman led Katherine Craddock, BA History ’00, to write a screenplay about the historical heroine. The piece garnered her a $50,000 prize—and the attention of companies offering her the chance to make it a major Hollywood production.
Craddock flew to California this spring for the 24th Annual Movieguide Awards, where she accepted the Chronos Prize for Most Inspiring Screenplay by an Established Filmmaker for American Exodus, an action story based Tubman’s life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Craddock, a mother of five with a sixth one due in August, was inspired to write the screenplay in 2013 for her now 8-year-old adopted son, who is African American.
“I really wanted my son to know how proud he could be of his history; that’s sort of the heartbeat behind my screenplay,” she says. “I wanted to write something he could be in, that he could have a role in. There aren’t too many roles in Hollywood for minorities.”
Craddock said she’s been fascinated with Tubman since she was the subject of her fourth-grade research project.
While a University Scholar at George Mason University, she took a class on South Africa and attended a Robinson seminar. The professors teaching those two courses contributed to her interest in writing on the subject matter.
That Robinson seminar was with Roger Wilkins, Robinson Professor of History and American Culture, whose encouragement had an impact on Craddock’s career path.
“He pulled me out of class to say, ‘You have a gift…. What are you going to do with it?'” she says. “That challenge stuck with me and put me on the path to becoming a professional writer.”
American Exodus portrays some of the lesser-known moments about Tubman and others who worked together to free slaves.
“[Tubman] was such a sacred kind of person and I was intimidated. I didn’t want to mess it up. I poured everything into it, and I wrote it like it was the last story I would ever tell,” she says.
Until recently, there wasn’t much international interest for stories like Tubman’s, Craddock said. Craddock believes the success of productions like Downton Abbey, Hamilton, Mercy Street, and Underground show that entertainment based in history is growing in popularity. And, she added, there’s now a push in Hollywood to create more productions that feature roles for minorities.
The award came just weeks before the U.S. Treasury announced plans to put Tubman’s face on the $20 bill. Once that happened, the offers from companies wanting to produce a film from Craddock’s screenplay exploded.
Initiatives like the Treasury’s bring attention to people and parts of American history that haven’t been explored yet, Craddock says.
“It’s honoring this American hero in a way she should have been honored a long time ago,” she says. “She was ordinary, but yet extraordinary.”
Craddock is now working on improving the American Exodus screenplay. The Chronos Award prize money is given as an incentive for the writer to spend time making their work more “family friendly,” Craddock says, since those films typically perform best at the box office. This summer she plans to choose the company that will turn her screenplay into a movie.