‘Harriet’ Editor, Wyatt Smith Talks Avoiding Movie Tropes of Slavery, Cynthia Erivo’s Casting, and More

Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) going from escaping slavery to helping others escape through the Underground Railroad. Showbiz Cheat Sheet talked to the film’s editor, Wyatt Smith on Sept. 11 at Toronto Film Festival. He talked about being amazed by Erivo’s performance and what it was like working with director, Kasi Lemmons.

Wyatt Smith said Cynthia Erivo transforms throughout ‘Harriet’

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in 'Harriet'
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman and Aria Brooks as Anger in ‘Harriet’ | Glen Wilson / Focus Features

“She is a dynamo,” he told Showbiz Cheat Sheet. “Her physicality is fascinating. I mean Harriet was around high over 5’2″. She was incredibly strong. She did have a beautiful singing voice supposedly. So here you have Cynthia who I think is 5’2″, incredibly athletic, has the most gifted voice. She was kind of a perfect fit into this role on top of just being an incredible actor.”

The actress plays the historical figure during three stages of her life. Smith noted how differently she plays each stage.

“I was saying to someone yesterday, ‘If you were to take out everything in the frame but her eyes. I could tell you exactly which of those three characters she was at any time,'” he said. “She really embodied it so well.”

Wyatt Smith talked to director, Kasi Lemmons about creating a movie with the Black audience in mind

The editor talked about the challenge of telling this story about people who have a different experience from his own. He said his conversations with the director helped him navigate this.

“Learning from Kasi, just having a lot of conversations about audience. Which as an editor I work for the audience more than a director, writer and actor,” he told Showbiz Cheat Sheet. “These films are meant to be seen and shared and I’m just trying to imagine who’s watching it and how to make it the best film for them.”

He continued, “But I am a privileged, middle class, white, middle-aged man. So trying to get more in tune with the Black audience is not something I could speak for naturally. A lot of my dialogue with Kasi is, in some places there is actually humor which is hard in a slave narrative.”

Smith added, “But also just getting her perspective and using some of some of the subtleties of language and knowing that something I might oversee could actually be quite damaging or more fulfilling to a Black audience. So getting her perspective and my perspective and kind of fusing that together to make the film was, I mean it was really one of my favorite parts of making this.

Lemmons wanted to avoid the tropes of a movie taking place during slavery

Tubman would see things after she injured her head and that plays a part in the movie. Smith admitted this was one of the harder things to get across in the movie.

“One of my first conversations with Kasi was to say look you know ‘The voice of God that’s there’s not really a lot of great precedent for that with movies.’ It’s very hard to make that work,” he revealed.

The editor added, “But I will say the thing we constantly re-evaluated and constantly reworked was the language of the visions. And how they would work for an audience. While not coming across as cheesy or distracting or irrelevant.”

There was another difficult aspect about editing the movie for Smith. Movies that take place during this time period can be hard to watch. This is often because there is a lot of focus on the violence done to enslaved people, rather than their humanity. Smith said it was Lemmons’ goal to avoid this.

“Well that was a big goal of Kasi’s with this film is to avoid a lot of the tropes of slavery,” said the editor. “It doesn’t mean that there isn’t brutality and certainly there’s a lot of implied violence. But those movies have been made.”

He continued, “They’ve been made very well, and with this story what she really wanted to show more was it’s not just the physical abuse. It’s the emotional abuse. It’s the decimation of family. Harriet’s family was torn apart.”

Wyatt later said, “And decimation of families obviously it’s very relatable unfortunately right now in our times. Kasi wanted to focus more on that aspect because family is what also drove and motivated Harriet so much rather than to see whippings and hangings. We know that they happened. We’re not trying to say that they didn’t.”

He noted that they wanted to make a movie that could be watched by a younger audience. Harriet is now released in theaters.