It has taken us until 2019 to have a film about Araminta “Minty” Ross. Better known in history as Harriet Tubman. In Kasi Lemmons’ new film “Harriet,” the story breaks away from the typical slave narrative of an upward journey. Rather, we get a story that delves into the woman, her humanity and inspirational life.
The film is defined, as editor Wyatt Smith points out, by “three distinct chapters of her life.” The first is Harriet as a slave woman who “is physically strong but oppressed” as she is abused and torn from her family. We then “watch her escape to freedom.” Smith explains, “She finally gets to experience life as a free woman in Philadelphia, amongst those who grew up so differently from her. At the same time, she is burdened by sadness and solitude without her husband and family. She knows that her freedom would never bring her any comfort unless they’re free as well. This drives her to go back to Maryland to help them escape along with other slaves. It ultimately leads her to a greater purpose, leading slaves to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In this third chapter, she becomes Moses, the legendary slave stealer, akin to a superhero.”
Having that transition and character arc, helped Smith editorially. “I had a lot of conversations with Kasi,” Smith says when trying to find the tone and pacing. Since Lemmons had done thorough research into Tubman, he posed questions to the director rather than “try to become an expert on Harriet myself.” He adds, “I wanted to learn about Harriet what the film would teach me. I didn’t want to put myself ahead of what the audience stood to learn. But it was so important that we be as truthful as possible. There are some composite characters. It’s amazing how many lines are direct quotes and how big a role she played leading up to, during and after the Civil War. She had incredible willpower and a strong moral compass.”
Any research on Tubman will tell you how her visions were a huge part of her story. Getting that across in the edit was a challenge, Smith admits. “We looked at all of the turning points and big decisions she faced in the film and applied visions to them. We knew they needed to be beautiful but abstract and help guide the story without being over-literal. Time was fluid in her visions, so it was a challenge figuring out how to incorporate the past, present and future. She had these powerful visions since she was a little girl and one recurring image was seeing her sisters sold into slavery down South. So, we knew that element needed to be there and that was one of the grounding pieces.” Smith says he and Lemmons worked on the placement of the visions right through to picture lock.
While the was crew shooting in Virginia, Smith was assembling the film in New York. For a while, Lemmons and Smith communicated by phone and email, which Smith says, “felt strange.” He finally went down to the set, spending four days with Lemmons. “That’s where we locked in our language, and that was one of the most important things for me. After watching Kasi work with Cynthia Erivo, the cast and crew, it was so much easier for me to see her intentions and vision in the dailies. I knew how I could help her get there.” After the shoot, Lemmons joined Smith in New York, and they cut the film together.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Tubman crosses to freedom for the first time. Smith shares a special movie magic moment with that scene. “It’s one of the most beautiful images in the film. It was meant to be a morning shot but they were shooting it at sunset for sunrise. Everyone was concerned because it was pouring. By the time, Cynthia got to set, out of nowhere, the rain broke and it was the most stunning sunset possible. They only were able to shoot one take and Cynthia could not have performed it more flawlessly. It was a blessing for me as an editor to have an actress who was that strong, always deep and true to the character. It was incredible.”