Harriet Tubman’s contributions to racial progress and to the world as a whole cannot be overstated. A similar sentiment can be made when speaking about Kasi Lemmons’ contributions to film. So when you combine Lemmons’ storytelling ability with Tubman’s historical contributions, you get a story that resonates with milions. And that’s where Lemmons’ 2019 feature film Harriet comes in.
The film chronicles Harriet Tubman’s own escape from captivity to the trials and tribulations that she went through in helping others escape through the Underground Railroad.
The film was so moving that HBO’s “One Perfect Shot” decided to chronicle one of its key moments in an episode. The docuseries, hosted and produced by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, invites directors to do a deep dive into one of its most memorable film scenes.
In her episode, Lemmons breaks down the moving scene where Harriet Tubman experienced freedom for the first time.
During the scene, Tubman, having escaped captivity, stands at the top of a tall hill during a golden hour. The sun then beams down on her forehead, washes fully over her face, as she raises her arms triumphantly.
With such a moving scene, one would think that several detailed, intricate storyboards were used. According to Lemmons, this was not the case.
“I don’t believe we storyboarded, but we talked about it very closely. We talked a lot about what we needed from that moment,” Lemmons said of the scene during a recent conversation with NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
The plan was to shoot during golden hour, which refers to the time just before sunrise, or just before sunset. In their case, they were shooting just before sunset.
“You have to have a plan to shoot at a magic hour, which is about 20 minutes long. So at the moment when the clouds parted, we knew exactly what we were going to do.”
However, Lemmons and the film crew only had a 10-minute window to get the shot they needed. They fought against the fatigue of a long day, getting the shot before the sunlight dwindled and a steady rain that wouldn’t let up. The crew marched up a large, heavily sloped hill and rushed into place for the shot. They had time for no more than two takes.
The result? Perfection.
“To have this actor [Cynthia Erivo], who is able to feel this moment … and the Steadicam ready to capture that, that’s the magic of the shot,” Lemmons said.
“The magic of the shot is the Steadicam passing her, she looks at her hands, her eyes fill with tears, and she walks into freedom.”