Derek Gentile: Mum Bett deserving of a movie



The story of Mum Bett should be a movie.

This really interesting tale of a female African-American slave who, essentially, wins her own freedom remains one of the most compelling stories -- check that -- compelling true stories, in American history.

For those who don’t specifically know that story, I would Google Mum Bett to get a flavor of it. If you don’t feel like Googling her, here are the basics.

Mum Bett was a slave in the Col. John Ashey House in Sheffield in the mid-to-late 1700s.

She didn’t like it. But unlike many slaves throughout the course of history, instead of running away, she sued for her freedom in Massachusetts court.

She had a key advantage, in that the newly minted state constitution had outlawed slavery.

Still, she had to hire a lawyer and she had the added problem of being a woman. Female African-American slaves were on an even lower rung than male slaves. So, she recruited a male slave, Brom, to help her press her suit.

She found a good lawyer, John Sedgwick, and took her suit to court.

She won. She became a free woman, changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and worked for wages for the Sedgwicks of Stockbridge until her death.

Obviously, what makes this particularly compelling is that Mum Bett took it upon herself to become a free person legally by taking on the system. In addition, she set in motion a movement that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. It became a domino effect and led to similar action from many other Northern states.

I was at the Statehouse on Tuesday for Mum Bett Day in Boston. I took little solace in listening to various heavy hitters at the State House concede that they didn’t know a heck of a lot about Mum Bett, because until about 17 years ago, I didn’t either.

I did, however, enjoy telling some of them about the Sedgwick pie, which is located in the Stockbridge cemetery. The Sedgwick pie in the Sedgwick family plot is also where Mum Bett is buried.

The graves are laid out in concentric circles around the central grave of former 18th century Supreme Court Justice Theodore Sedgwick and his wife, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick. The theory being that when Judgment Day comes, the first individual the Sedgwicks will see is not God, but Theodore Sedgwick. Everybody I told thought that was pretty interesting.

I’ve been reading in various magazines and blogs that many African-Americans are complaining that too many movies about African-Americans ("12 Years A Slave," "The Butler") portray blacks as struggling with their situations until a white savior comes along and bails them out.

I would say that is a reasonable point, although, let’s face it, in some of these stories, there is indeed a white savior, whether African-Americans like to admit it or not.

There really isn’t a white savior in this story. Yes, Mum Bett had to hire a white lawyer, but that was because she couldn’t hire a black one. And even John Sedgwick wasn’t sure this whole thing would work.

So I think it would make a good movie. Maybe Octavia Spencer ("The Help") as Mum Bett; maybe Liam Neeson as her lawyer, John Sedgwick and possibly Hugh Bonneville ("Downton Abbey," "The Monuments Men") as Ashley.

All subject to change, of course.

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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