A Studio Executive Wanted Julia Roberts To Play Harriet Tubman In A Biopic
Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter, and producer of Harriet, a historical drama based on Harriet Tubman’s life starring Cynthia Erivo, said in 1994 when he began working on the project, a studio executive wanted Julia Roberts to take on the title role.
The obvious issue being that Harriet Tubman is one of the most celebrated black women in American history — she almost made it on the twenty-dollar bill before Donald Trump came along — and Roberts is a white woman. The executive didn’t think anyone would notice.
Allen recalled in a Q&A how different Hollywood was 25 years ago when he first began writing Harriet.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” Howard explained. “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 retold the story in a recent essay for the Los Angeles Times. He noted that there was a sole black person in the room when the incident happened.
“Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman,” Howard wrote. “The president replied, ‘That was so long ago. No one will know that.’”
It’s no surprise it would take Howard 25 years to get his Harriot Tubman script told the way he wanted. The screenwriter credited the recent blockbusters starring black icons for paving the way for his film to finally get made.
“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,” Howard said.
Tubman lived a full life despite being born into slavery. She died at 90 years old, a free woman having liberated at least 700 slaves, and as an America hero. Harriet took her last breath in 1913, thus the idea that viewers wouldn’t remember her is moot.
Many Twitter users of color took this anecdote as an opportunity to lament about Hollywood’s constant white-washing.
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen shared four photos in response. One of Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl, Mike Meyers as an Indian guru, Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian, and Johnny Depp as a Native American. All are white characters playing a different race, while opportunities and roles for people of those races remain few and far between.
“Julie Roberts as Harriet Tubman? Rebel Wilson is writing and producing a teen K-pop movie. Meanwhile, me and my friends can’t put two nickels together to get our indy features made or seen,” another user commented.
Some users roasted the scenario by putting images of Julia Roberts on twenty-dollar bills or claiming they could possibly play Roberts in a film despite being a person of color.
“I just heard that Chiwetel Ejiofor only got the part in 12 Years a Slave because Julia Roberts turned it down. Damn,” another user joked.
Jordan Crucchiola, the associate editor of Vulture, decided to look on the bright side: an incident like this should stop anyone’s imposter syndrome short.
“If you’re chasing a Hollywood dream and feel doubtful you’ll ever make it, remember there are executives getting paid shit loads of money to suggest JULIA ROBERTS should play Harriet Tubman. A jar of cockroaches is more qualified than some of these people so DON’T GIVE UP,” Crucchiola wrote on Twitter.
Howard documented his struggle to get Harriet made in his LA Times essay.
Howard is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Disney’s Remember the Titans, but Harriet was always his passion project.
“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,” Howard told Focus Features.
The screenwriter suggested that Hollywood executives were unable to see stories about black people or starring black leads as profitable.
“The number of doors slammed in my face, the number of passes, the number of unreturned phone calls, canceled meetings, abandonments, racist rejections, the number of producing partners who bailed, are too many to list,” Howard wrote. “And later I foolishly used my status as a commercial screenwriter to get meetings and then sneaked in a pitch for Harriet Tubman’s story. Bait and switch.”
With marginalized voices breaking barriers in Hollywood, Howard was finally able to get his film made.
“As someone who has been in this business for decades, I am enjoying the warmth of the Hollywood climate change, and the diverse stories that are bathing in that sunlight, happy that Harriet’s other journey is now finally complete,” he wrote.