With the countless amount of historical-figure biopics that are churned out each year, It’s baffling to think that the story of Harriet Tubman is only now being immortalised with a film adaptation. Harriet is directed by Kasi Lemmons (Talk To Me) and features a magnificent performance from British-star-on-the-rise Cynthia Erivo as the titular Harriet Tubman.
Harriet Tubman’s story was always ripe for the big screen. Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland during the early nineteenth century. She escaped when she was 27 to Pennsylvania and then went on to become a renowned abolitionist. Despite finding her own freedom she chose to help other enslaved African Americans escape by using a network of safe passages which came to be known as the Underground Railroad. She made 13 journeys across a 100 mile distance guiding 70 slaves to freedom. She is now regarded as one of the greatest heroes of American history.
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So why did it take so long for her story be told? I sat down with Wyatt Smith – the editor of Harriet to discuss Tubman’s legacy, working with Cynthia Erivo and bringing Kasi Lemmons’ vision to life. As a Brit I had to immediately confess to Smith that my knowledge of Tubman was fairly minimal. I’d only ever heard about her from an episode of 30 Rock with Octavia Spencer portraying her (in what would’ve been her first film adaptation if not for the fictional series). But after seeing Lemmons’ Harriet the first thing Wyatt and I agreed on was that it’s truly shameful she hasn’t been given her dues until now.
Although Tubman is a regularly featured figure in the American classroom syllabus, Smith believes that the timing is right for the world to be reintroduced to Tubman with Lemmons’ film. Smith explains, “In the last few years hatred and racism in America has spiked. Since the era of Obama there has been a resurgence of hate since he left the office. Now more than ever we need to go back to a figure of hope. We need more heroes in the African American community and she [Tubman] is one of them”.
The only images we have of Harriet Tubman were towards the end of her life, however it was the earlier years of Tubman’s life when she accomplished so many inspiring things. Lemmons wanted to show the very 3 specific Harriet’s that she was known as by breaking the narrative structure into three separate acts. Wyatt credits the star-making turn from Cynthia Erivo for her ability to distinctly show each version of Harriet. He says, “she was born as Araminta Harriet Ross but was commonly known as ‘Minty’. After she escaped she became ‘Harriet’ then later she became ‘Moses’”.
The metamorphosis of Minty to Harriet and finally Moses is beautifully portrayed by Erivo but atwhat point does she evolve into her next self? Smith reveals it was all in Erivo’s eyes. “While I was editing the film it didn’t matter where I was in the story I could tell instantly whether I was watching Minty, Harriet or Moses. Cynthia conveyed each side of her with nuance – she had the character so defined that you were feeling it naturally – which made my job much easier”.
When discussing the challenges of his job Wyatt says “the biggest obstacle was finding the tone of the film”. Harriet Tubman’s spirituality is key part of her history. Smith revealed “Harriet regularly spoke to God – she had visions which she interpreted as visions from God. If you research her you will see her visions and spirituality are a huge part of the Tubman lore – we knew we couldn’t leave it out. The question was how do we show the visions without it being hokey?”. History details that Harriet suffered a head injury as a child and also suffered from seizures on a daily basis. Wyatt says “modern medicine could explain Harriet’s vision as a result of brain damage. People may question the convenience of the reality but that’s what happened. So it was a collaborative effort as to how we portrayed the visions”.
Director Kasi explored many avenues but it became obvious it would be more a matter of where to put them within the film and the rest would slot into place. They quickly ruled out the idea of having a voice of God speak directly to Harriet. As Wyatt says “it felt painfully obvious and it’s hard to not make that sound cheesy”. Eventually they decided to incorporate elements of Tubman’s spirit to convey Harriet’s innerfeeling. Wyatt explains “nature was a key element we used. We had animals, night sky as well as
flashes of Harriet’s sister being sold into slavery – it felt symbolic of her spirituality and added that emotion to give Harriet that gut-feeling this was what she needed to do”.
Despite the film exploring the darker side of history with the subject of slavery, it was always Lemmons’ intention to make a film about freedom and not about the brutality of slavery. She wanted the film to be accessible to all ages. Wyatt says “We’ve seen films about slavery before and we’ve seen the brutality but it was important to make a film that felt inspiring and hopeful. There is a call to action but we wanted to be true to Harriet by telling her story in a way that inspires others to live her legacy of courage and force of will – to speak up when something is wrong”.
Wyatt says “I want a 12 year old girl to see this film and be inspired by who she was. The
remarkable thing about Harriet Tubman was that she was an ordinary woman in many respects but she did these extraordinary things – she truly was a hero”.
Interview by Luke Hearfield