Cynthia Erivo recently brought Harriet Tubman to life in Kasi Lemmons‘ biopic Harriet. But back in the 1990s, things could’ve gone very, very differently. According to Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard, an attempt to get the movie made back in 1994 resulted in one studio executive suggesting Julia Roberts for the role of the African-American abolitionist.
Hollywood has a bad habit of whitewashing certain roles, but this might be the most egregious example to date. Gregory Allen Howard, screenwriter of Harriet, has been working on getting the film made for at 25 years, and back in the ’90s, one studio head had a questionable (to say the least) casting idea to play the famous abolitionist.
As Allen said during a recent Q&A:
“Harriet, which was set up at Disney 26 years ago, was my first assignment. When I got in the business, I wanted to tell these historical stories by turning them into entertainment. I didn’t want to give history lessons. I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.’ When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.’”
Thankfully, the Julia Roberts-starring Harriet never happened – not to say Roberts would’ve even accepted the part, of course. In any case, Howard’s statement shows how clueless and tone-deaf certain people with positions of power can be. While I think Hollywood has improved in the years since they still have a long way to go.
Howard went on to add that the Harriet languished, unmade, for years, until the success of two films: “When 12 Years a Slave became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open.” Mercifully, when Harriet finally did get made, no one suggested Julia Roberts for the lead again.
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