Harriet star Cynthia Erivo has been praised for her portrayal of the famous abolitionist. According to the film’s screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard, however, another Hollywood star was once briefly considered for the role of Harriet Tubman...and it’s very, very confusing.
A biopic of Tubman’s life has been in the works for over two decades, and according to Howard’s interview with Focus Features, not every executive understood the project. In fact, one said that Julia Roberts would make a great Tubman.
“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman's life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie,” the writer explained. “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.’”
Howard never named the studio executive, but told The Los Angeles Times in an essay that the comment was made in 1994 and uttered by the president of a studio sub-label. Apparently, the executive was informed by the only Black person in the room of the obvious problem with potentially casting Roberts.
The movie did not end up getting made by that particular studio. Focus Features, which was founded in 2002, would go on to make the film with Kasi Lemmons, a Black woman, as the film's director.
Though this thoughtless comment allegedly occurred 26 years ago, Hollywood has had its share of whitewashing issues in recent years. Scarlett Johansson was criticized for her role in 2017’s Ghost In the Shell, which is based on a Japanese manga. Rooney Mara was hit with backlash for portraying Tiger Lily, a Native American character, in 2016’s Pan. This year, Emma Stone recently apologized at the Golden Globes for portraying a woman of Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish descent in 2015’s Aloha.
That's likely why most people on Twitter weren't exactly shocked that a studio executive would allegedly make such a comment.
What's almost as disappointing as this ridiculous statement is that it took over 20 years for Harriet — an important story about a Black heroine fighting oppression — to get made. Fortunately, when it did, no one took that exec's alleged suggestion.
Refinery29 reached out to Erivo and Roberts for comment.