About The Production
HARRIET was filmed entirely on location in Virginia during an
uncharacteristically wet fall of 2018, which required the cast and crew to work
through grueling conditions-many sequences were shot in the woods with the
actors and filmmakers having to contend with rain and wind, mud and insects. But
a sense of purpose helped lessen the discomfort, according to producer Debra
Martin Chase. "I can't tell you how many times I overheard conversations where
the crew was saying, 'But you know, Harriet went through this, and Harriet
didn't have electricity, and Harriet was in the dark of night, and Harriet
didn't have food, or shoes, or a coat. So, I can do this,'" Chase says. "Her
spirit really became part of this movie."
The practical locations were vital, however, in terms of giving the
production a feeling of authenticity that it simply wouldn't have had otherwise.
"The look of the film is very naturalistic," says Oscar-winning cinematographer
John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall). "We wanted to take advantage of the
look and feel of the actual locations and the type of landscape and geography
where Harriet actually existed."
Weeks before filming began, production designer Warren Alan Young, who
previously worked with Lemmons on her 1960s-set drama Talk to Me, embarked on a
period of extensive research, consulting with various historians in order to be
able to paint an accurate image of the world as it was during Tubman's life. "I
wanted to understand the environment and all the details as clearly as possible
so that everything we're putting forth really represents what Harriet and the
others would have encountered, what they would have seen and smelled," Young
Once the shoot began, the production visited various historic sites around
Virginia including the Berkeley Plantation and the 1726 Georgian mansion in
Charles City County, birthplace of Presidents Benjamin and William Henry
Harrison. Properties on the National Historic Landmark site served as both the
Brodess Plantation and the home of New York governor and senator William Seward,
who invites Harriet into his Auburn, New York home along with other prominent
abolitionists including Frederick Douglass for a meeting in 1851.
Young's team constructed ramshackle slave quarters in proximity to the home
used as the Brodess family dwelling and made temporary alterations to the main
house itself so that it would appear in keeping with the period. "We just had to
peel back some of the modernization from the home and hide some things here and
there," Young says. "But it was a challenging set and location because of the
acreage involved and wanting to see as far as you can see and portray as much as
possible. We planted gardens behind the slave quarters-which slaves were often
allowed to do to supplement the meager food that was allowed them by the slave
When it came to outfitting the quarters themselves, Young returned to his
reams of photographic research to recreate the living conditions as accurately
as possible. "The tools they had, the
baskets, the furniture-all were made to the exact specifications as what would
have been found in slave quarters in Maryland at that time," Young says. "We
have a large amount of photo evidence to refer back to as that was the beginning
of the age of photography. We benefitted from that and from paintings and
illustrations as well.
"We were able to find a lot of furniture, bowls and serving ware that was
original and in good shape," Young continues. "We had some of our textiles made,
but we would find as best we could fabrics that researchers told us would have
been used at that time for window treatments and things. We even built the
mattresses for the slaves' quarters based on research that allowed us to
understand what the mattresses would look and feel like. The amount of research
that's been done not just on Harriet's world but the world of slavery over these
last 10 years has been phenomenal, so the visual truth of what existed and what
life was like then is becoming more and more clear."
For the crops and other plantings seen on screen, the production designer
researched what sorts of trees, plants and shrubs would have been growing in the
region during the 1800s and worked with a local farmer to make sure the film
would be able to visually capture the crops that would have been growing on the
Brodess property when Harriet lived there.
"We were there very near the end of the corn harvest, but the farmer whose
fields surround the house agreed to leave some crops unharvested long enough for
us to see them," Young says. "The other challenge was the way crops are
harvested today-either with farmers driving combines or it's completely
automated-there's a very manufactured look that's left behind once the crops
have been harvested. When corn or any other crop is hand-picked, there's a
different look to the field afterwards. The same farmer agreed to use a method
of harvesting that would allow us to have the correct look the farm where we
Once Harriet leaves the plantation behind and arrives in Pennsylvania, the
production moved to Petersburg, Virginia. The brick buildings that line the
downtown core were used for the busy city streets of Philadelphia, home of the
Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and the rooming house run by Marie Buchanon-using
the same Colonial era building for both of those locations.
"It's a historic place and somehow they've been able to maintain and preserve
a lot of their original architecture," Young says of Petersburg. "In the
Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, we had an actual printing press that you see
William using when Harriet first comes in. It was made for use around that time,
and it weighed about 800 pounds. We found a group of people who were historical
printers and preservationists for the equipment, and we rented this old printing
press that was in excellent working condition from them. Many of the documents
on that wall we printed on that press. It all goes toward creating that
Authenticity was just as important to costume designer Paul Tazewell, who was
familiar with telling important stories about American history, having designed
the costumes for Lin Manuel Miranda's Broadway sensation Hamilton. Before the
production began, Tazewell undertook a great deal of research and rooted his
designs in history to the greatest degree possible.
"If you're dealing with an actual person who lived and breathed, it's very
important to create a world that is believable," Tazewell says. "Thankfully, the
period that Harriet lived in is documented by a lot of photography. The
Daguerreotypes of the period are quite amazing. The eyes in those faces and the
humanity that resonates out of them, I think that's where I get my inspiration
because my work is based in character, developing different types of characters
and making those feel as real as possible. There are reams and reams of
photographs that we work from."
In addition to renting or borrowing some period costume, Tazewell created
garments inspired by those photographs, which were broken down through repeated
washings or by scrubbing them with sandpaper and other abrasive agents to give
the costumes a worn, aged look. Other costumes were dyed and painted to make
them look more stained or sun-bleached. "The grounds that we were using for the
farm or for the plantation had a very specific color of dirt, so the way that we
were distressing the clothes needs to jive with what that color is," Tazewell
Dressing as Harriet helped actress Cynthia Erivo uncover new sides of the
character to fully inhabit the role. "She has nothing, and she goes through a
huge journey and her clothing breaks down completely, almost to the point that
it's falling off," the actress says. "Then she recreates herself as this super
human woman. It was more about an emotional feel for who she had become and how
she had realized herself. It's this pastiche of clothing pieces that all put
together makes her into this bad-ass woman.
"These costumes with the full skirts and the corsets and all of that-running
with a corset, riding a horse with a corset is an interesting thing to be a part
of-it gives me this extra sense of strength and power," Erivo continues. "I
loved that with every new costume comes this extra part of her that you wouldn't
see unless she was in the clothing. Every time you put something new on, it's
like, oh, this is a different part of her. How would she move in this? How would
she feel in this?"
Janelle Monae, too, praised Tazewell's designs as aiding her in finding a way
to connect with her character and the world she inhabits. "These costumes have
helped me immensely," says Monae. "To really get into the corsets and the
fabrics, they're so beautiful. As soon as I put the outfit on, I feel like Marie
instantly. I'm taken into the 1800s. I love costumes, world building. I love the
details in the fabric, the hair, the stains in the clothes, the vintage pieces.
It all puts me in the world, and it makes me feel like I'm honoring these
characters in the best possible way."
Hair and makeup were also key to recreating how the 19th century characters
would have looked. Lemmons and Erivo worked closely not only with Tazewell but
also with the makeup and hair department leads Angie Wells (Mudbound) and
Belinda Anderson ("Luke Cage") to determine the best way to capture Harriet's
features. "We all came together to find out what Harriet's visual language is,"
Erivo says. "I have no eye makeup on, which is one of the most refreshing things
ever. We had to determine, how far do we take the scar that she has?
The scar is a remnant of the head injury Harriet suffered in adolescence, and
Wells and Lemmons had several conversations about where the scar should be
positioned on Harriet's face. "Kasi had a photograph of a bust that had been
done of Harriet Tubman that had a sort of a dent on her forehead," Wells says.
"We took a little bit of creative license because Harriet did have a head
injury, but nobody could really see where it was. Kasi decided that we should
put it between her eyebrows, so we had created a transfer based on that
photograph and have been using that as our scar."
Says Lemmons: "To me, HARRIET is a story of tenacity and human courage and
strength and purpose and drive. Harriet had this incredible integrity. People
that wrote about her contemporaneously talked about her humanity and her warmth.
To get all that in this woman, to see what's behind her magnificent face, this
wonderful scowl that she has-in so many pictures she's got a seriousness of a
life lived-we get to show how she got to be this person and witness this
transformation of this woman into a real hero."
To help showcase that transformation through music, Lemmons turned to
creative collaborator Terence Blanchard, the six-time Grammy Award-winning
trumpeter and Oscar-nominated composer who wrote the score for HARRIET. Their
professional relationship dates to Lemmons' acclaimed feature film debut Eve's
Bayou. "Kasi wanted music that would have beauty, harmony, strength and
gentleness," Blanchard says. "She also knew there had to be a fine balance of
everything, nothing could be too sweet or too masculine. My approach was to
first think about how powerful Harriet Tubman must have been and at the same
time, remind myself of how petite she was. I wanted to create a theme that would
have strong harmonic content with a beautiful melody. Both things would
exemplify the duality of her existence, the strength of her character and the
grace by which she conducted herself."
Lemmons flew to New Orleans to sit with Blanchard in his studio as he wrote
music for the score; Blanchard wanted the music for the film to transcend time
and place, though the period in which the story takes place did have some
bearing on the artistic choices he made. "I spent time finding the balance
between the ethnic sound of the drums, matched with the vast colors of a full
orchestra," the composer says, adding that he was careful to underscore the
story's triumphant tone. "This isn't a slave story. It's the story of a heroine
whose heart and bravery went well beyond the boundaries of oppression, the story
of a person moved and called to action."
"STAND UP": HARRIET TUBMAN'S HEROISM CELEBRATED IN SONG
Just as it's captured on screen through story and performance, Harriet
Tubman's spirit is also expressed in the film through music and song. HARRIET
features the original composition "Stand Up," co-written by Joshuah Campbell and
the film's star Cynthia Erivo, who also lends her voice to the inspirational
closing track. "Having played Harriet, there was a deeper knowledge of what she
had been through so I was able to use that knowledge and emotion in creating the
song," Erivo says.
Songwriter and musician Campbell came to the attention of the filmmakers
after a 2018 performance of his song "Sing Out/March On" at the Harvard
University commencement ceremony went viral. Currently a second-year Master of
Divinity student at New York's Union Theological Seminary, Campbell composed
"Sing Out/March On" in response to the Black Lives Matter movement after
participating in several of the group's political actions. The performance at
Harvard, which he attended as an undergraduate, was in honor of Congressman and
civil rights hero John Lewis. When the call came to work on HARRIET, Campbell
was excited to help pay tribute to Tubman as he shares a special connection to
the activist: Like Tubman, he belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Church. "There was a lot of what I understand as divine order," Campbell says of
being invited to contribute to telling the icon's story. "Stand Up" came
together quickly. After initially sketching out ideas for the song, he recorded
a demo version with collaborators Gabe Fox-Peck and Aric Flemming in Boston,
before traveling to New York to meet with Erivo. Together, Campbell and the
HARRIET star-a Grammy-winning vocalist whose 2016 album Cynthia Erivo & Oliver
Tompsett Sing Scott Alan debuted to considerable acclaim-shaped the song that
"Stand Up" would become. With its deep emotional pull, the track is informed by
the rousing traditions of gospel, soul, and spirituals, with jazz folk, and
country influences as well. "Cynthia and I, along with her producer, had a
writing session where we talked about making the lyrics and the piece in general
honest to Cynthia as its performer, and I think we accomplished that," Campbell
says. "We did shift the key up, and Cynthia added some modulations that gave the
piece the lift she wanted. Cynthia rewrote the bridge beautifully, making it
honest to the story of the film, and made some other changes that make the piece
"Working with Joshuah was a lovely experience," Erivo says. "He's an
incredibly talented young man. Still in seminary school with a beautiful talent
for music, he was thrown into the deep end and really delivered. Being able to
share my knowledge and put our heads together to find what was right was really
Once Campbell finally had the opportunity to see the finished film, he was
struck by how closely the themes of lyrics he penned with Erivo dovetailed with
the themes of the story. "It's my opinion that songs know how to write
themselves," Campbell says. "I think the song dictated to us that its job was to
tell a story about a woman who inspires many people, most primarily those women
and others who fight for black liberation. It was certainly important that the
song capture the spirit of the film, but of supreme importance-above all
else-was that the song honor the spirit of Harriet, the woman."
Erivo describes "Stand Up" as "a song full of emotion and a story of
tenacity," adding, "I loved performing it; it has a piece of my heart in it.
That's the only way I know how to sing. To be honest, it was really important to
me to be able to be part of the creation of the song because it feels like
another way to pay tribute to Harriet and to thank her."
AND GOD SMILED: CROSSING INTO FREEDOM
OF the many emotional scenes in HARRIET, the moment she crossed over from
Maryland into the free territory of Pennsylvania is one of the most uplifting.
Overcoming incredible odds, the heroine charts a new life for herself to be
lived on her own terms. Shooting the sequence was especially memorable for the
production-not only because of the powerful subject matter, but also because the
day's shoot initially did not go according to plan.
"You get to the part in any production where things are going badly," Lemmons
says. "That day, we drove to work in the pouring rain. It had been raining for
hours, and the ground was really muddy. We had this scene that takes place at
the crest of a hill where Harriet walks into freedom. It was our last day in
this location, so we're rushing through the work to try to get to the top of the
hill to try and find light, which seems impossible. We get to the top of the
hill, and there are these blue clouds everywhere.
"The sky cleared, and the setting sun started to come through these clouds
and created this wonderful pink and orange reflective glow with beams of light
shining through the clouds," Lemmons continues. "We called 'Action,' and as
Harriet walks into freedom, the sun bursts through the clouds and created the
most beautiful lens flare I've ever seen. It made us all very emotional. It was
like the clouds parted for Harriet's walk into freedom. You felt that you were
experiencing something singular.
"We shot it a couple of times, and every take was gorgeous," Lemmons concludes.
"Then we turned around and there was a double rainbow behind us. We waited all
day for this shot, and it seemed so impossible. And then God smiled."
That moment, the filmmakers say, is emblematic of the larger aims of the
project-reminding audiences of the incredible life of a remarkable woman and
inspiring viewers to believe that they, too, can affect positive change in the
world. Says Daniela Taplin Lundberg: "Honestly, we as the filmmakers feel like
if we can do anything, it's to tell a story of hope and the triumph of the human
spirit. Harriet Tubman is someone who transcended so many stereotypes and
assumptions. She was an ordinary person who accomplished the unbelievable. I
want to remind our daughters, our sons, our families when they come and see this
film that anything is possible."
THE TIME IS NOW: TAPPING INTO A CULTURAL MOMENT
Although HARRIET was years in the making, the release of the film couldn't
come at a more appropriate moment with Tubman herself finally beginning to
receive the widespread recognition she so richly deserves: She's come to the
forefront of the cultural conversation as a shining example of courage and
resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming adversity.
To celebrate her incalculable contributions to American life, Tubman had been
selected by the U.S. Treasury to become the first person of color to be
represented on any of the nation's currency. In April 2016 during President
Obama's Administration, former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that
Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill,
following a 10-month process in which the department sought input from the
"The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of
responses we received from Americans young and old," Lew said at the time. "I
have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children
for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for
leadership and participation in our democracy."
While the unveiling of the Tubman $20 bill had been timed to coincide with
the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to
vote, it was announced in June 2019 by current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
that it has been pushed back; the Tubman $20 is now set to debut in 2028.
Tubman also was at the center of the news cycle earlier this year after a
photo of a three-year-old girl interacting with a mural of the legendary freedom
fighter went viral. Painted on the side wall of the Harriet Tubman Museum &
Education Center in downtown Cambridge, Maryland-just a few miles from where
Tubman grew up-the 14' X 28' mural features Tubman offering an outstretched
hand, inviting every person to accompany her on a journey toward freedom.
Muralist Michael Rosato painted the image, which was commissioned by the
Dorchester Center for the Arts and began attracting attention from around the
country as soon as it was completed in May 2019. The artist told CNN he wanted
to capture "that moment when an enslaved person has to trust her to take their
hand to freedom." Social media helped bring attention to Rosato's powerful
portrait of Tubman and to the work of the museum, which has been run by local
volunteers seeking to preserve Tubman's legacy since the 1980s through education
In March 2017, the Maryland Park Service and Maryland government opened the
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center in Churck Creek,
Maryland located in the heart of the Choptank River Region where Harriet grew up
and first fled to the north on her self emancipation to celebrate Tubman's live
and legacy. It's a 17-acre facility that has already been visited by nearly
200,000 guests from all 50 states and over 60 countries. The National Park
Service has now established two National historical parks in Tubman's honor -
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center in Maryland,
and the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY. Tubman is the
only U.S. woman to be honored with two parks.
Says Debra Martin Chase: "I just think people want inspiration and that's
what Harriet's story is-that we can all make a difference. Where there's hope,
there's the opportunity to change. We need to feel good about what's possible,
and we have to remember what's happened before to be able to deal with the
present and to move forward."
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