Film biography Harriet had its eagerly awaited world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, giving rise to the obvious question: why was Harriet Tubman’s life story never made into a movie before?
An escaped slave who risked her hard-won freedom and her life to lead others out of slavery, using a range of elaborate strategies and disguises, seems to lend itself to drama, as does Harriet Tubman’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement in the US and the growth of the so-called Underground Railroad by which slaves were helped to escape. Seeing director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons’ vivid take on the subject suggests one reason (apart from past indifference): the subject matter presents some unique challenges.
The filmmaker must balance the realities of slavery and its dehumanising effects, with the need to present characters who are full individuals, and in some cases heroes. The frequently changing laws and political tactics impacting on slavery and the anti-slavery movement must be made clear without letting explanations slow the action. Even some of Harriet Tubman’s idiosyncrasies complicate the work of bringing her to life on film. Kasi Lemmons makes every effort to juggle these conflicting demands and present a visually impressive, balanced but moving biography, beginning with the inspired casting of British former stage actress Cynthia Erivo in the title role. A director does not work alone. Much of the credit for any filmmaker’s finished product, and for Harriet in particular, must go to the vital but often overlooked work of the film editor. Far Out was fortunate enough to speak with Wyatt Smith, veteran film editor on box office hits such as Doctor Strange, Mary Poppins Returns, and Thor: The Dark World, along with experience in other areas of filmmaking, and the man responsible for film editing on Harriet. It is, of course, a sign of quality work that the action in Harriet seems to flow effortlessly. Smith agreed that being unable to notice the editing is a good thing, commenting, “I much prefer the invisible art of editing where the work is felt and not seen.”
Asked how his work on Harriet differed from previous films, and what choices Harriet required in particular, Smith provided some background on the creative decisions involved. “My work is always guided by story, performance, and pace,” he explained. “Find the story, use the best performances to tell that story, and then get everyone out of the theatre as swiftly as possible. That same process applies to Harriet.”
Even the comparatively low budget and indie status informed the editing process. “Being a smaller independent film, the setup and take counts were much lower than a big studio project, meaning less options when cutting. I actually found that really refreshing as you have to get more creative to work out new ideas or fix problems.”
One challenge involved the film editor being in New York while filming took place on location in Richmond, Virginia. Smith remarked, “Another benefit of less footage was that it was easier to see [director] Kasi’s intention for each scene while being hundreds of miles away from set.”
Wyatt Smith revealed the basic structure of the film intended by the director, referring to Harriet Tubman’s original name as a slave, where she was called Minty; her taking a new name after escaping slavery; and finally earning the nickname Moses while working to help slaves escape bondage. “[Kasi Lemmons and I] discussed the three stages of Harriet that she wanted to portray in the film, beginning with Minty, the strong but suppressed slave girl who evolved into Harriet, a free but solemn woman without her family, before becoming Moses, the slave stealer and legend of the Underground Railroad. Thankfully, we were spoiled by the most wonderful performance by Cynthia Erivo, who masterfully embodied Harriet Tubman in those three distinct phases of her character.”
Harriet Tubman has become larger than life, her experiences representing not only her own struggle, but all slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the Underground Railroad she helped to perpetuate. In director Lemmons’ hands, Harriet acts not only as an individual, but a representative of human misery and human determination, as well as the contemptuous observer of political compromise that made escape harder and more complicated for American slaves, as when the northern states ceased offering sanctuary to escapees, forcing runaways to travel a greater distance to the Canadian border to seek asylum. Smith acknowledged the challenge of giving the Harriet Tubman story its due, and the responsibility of making the history clear to present-day viewers. In response to a question about the unique demands of editing a film like Harriet, he replied, “Creatively, the pressure to tell her story honestly while also being cinematic was tremendous pressure, way beyond the many moving parts of, say, a Marvel film. In our current culture, we mostly rely on visual mediums to quickly gain information, as opposed to books or library research when I was growing up. We now receive our news in a fast and abbreviated format without delving deeper on our own and often, we take whatever we hear first as the truth and all we need to know. Biopics like Harriet are no different and we have to be sure that we are being as truthful and responsible with her story as possible. Many people will not dig deeper into her life beyond what’s on the screen.”
In fact, Smith feels that representing the reality of slavery in what amounts to a heroic epic was a particular difficulty. “The biggest challenge to editing Harriet was the tone,” he commented. “Kasi wanted Harriet to be uplifting and inspiring which is difficult to do in a slave narrative. We also wanted to avoid the tropes of slavery that have been seen in many films before while in no ways wanting to soften or downplay the atrocities of slavery. Harriet’s family was torn apart by slavery and that emotional pain determined the course of her life. Her courage to return South until all her family was free is an inspiring story, not just a tragic one. It’s important that audiences, especially young audiences, be able to see that story and be inspired to help others as she did.”
Asked about the experience of working creatively with director Kasi Lemmons, Smith expanded on the director’s approach and overall vision for the film. “Working with Kasi was the greatest experience. She believes and trusts the editing process, and was with me every day in the cutting room.” Smith and Lemmons discussed not just the technical aspects of the film, but its content and theme, and the further issues it brings up: “We had an honest and open dialogue about the film, history, and race. Sadly there were stories of hate in the news nearly every day, and that reminded us of how important it is to get Harriet’s inspiring story into the mainstream. The decimation of the family is a major problem in modern America, and was something that determined the arc of Harriet’s life during slavery. Kasi’s perspective as an African-American woman, and mine as a white male, helped us picture how a range of audiences might receive the film. We discussed every line and detail based on our differing life experiences and learned from each other. We worked and re-worked every scene and character, sometimes to the point of breaking the film, to know that we were telling the best story possible.”
One aspect of Harriet Tubman’s story which might be especially troublesome to depict effectively is the matter of Harriet’s ‘visions.’ After sustaining a skull fracture during a vicious beating by her master, Harriet experienced regular seizures for the rest of her life, during which she would have dreamlike visions. Her own explanation was that they were genuine mystical revelations send from God, a view that was strengthened by the fact that some of her visions appeared to reveal upcoming events or warn her of impending danger. The more prosaic explanations for these attacks are quietly referenced in the script, hinting that they may be seen as purely physical events; but otherwise the film allows Harriet’s explanation to stand, and makes her periodic visions act as guidance and warning at key moments. As Smith explains, this was part of Lemmons’ original concept for the film: “In our very first meeting Kasi said she wanted to hone in on the mystical nature of Harriet Tubman, who had a Joan of Arc-like communication with God.”
Wyatt Smith describes this part of the story from the perspective offered by the script: “As a child, Harriet was struck in the head by a slaver, resulting in seizures which enabled her to communicate with God. Through those seizures or dreams, she had really wild visions, some beautiful, some grotesque, but always providing information or guidance. You could call those visions instinct and they are essential to the lore and story of Harriet Tubman.”
The visions themselves are shown, given an otherworldly appearance to set them apart from ordinary reality. Wyatt Smith was asked what approach was taken for these unusual scenes. “The visions were ever evolving in the cutting room,” he explained. How, he asked rhetorically, can something like that be represented on screen? “First, we worked to find the balance of where and how often to use them. In reality, Harriet could have a dozen spells a day, but that wouldn’t work for the movie. We knew that some imagery, such as the sale of her sisters, recurred throughout her whole life, so we knew to respect that. We tried them around every turning point or decision to see where they felt right, using them to guide Harriet as well as the audience.”
Smith described how he worked closely with Kasi Lemmons and the technical crew in achieving the look and feel they wanted for the film, particularly in terms of Harriet Tubman’s visionary experiences. “As for the style, we experimented a lot and the final result is a collaborative effort. Kasi and I cut the story and base imagery. Our cinematographer, John Toll [a film technician of 40 years’ experience, whose films include Braveheart, Iron Man 3, and Legends of the Fall], with colourist Tony Dustin, worked on the visual treatment. Blake Leigh, our supervising sound editor, created the trigger sounds and surreal landscapes. And finally, Terence Blanchard along with jazz pianist Fabian Almazan improvised the ‘voice of God’ leading you through each vision.” Terence Blanchard also provided the film’s stirring, often melodramatic soundtrack.
Clearly, one of the men who brought this film into being feels that Harriet Tubman’s story is one that is due to be told, by his concluding remark, “It’s time that we recognise Harriet Tubman as one of the greatest heroes of US history.”