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Julia Roberts was a favorite to play black abolitionist Harriet Tubman and a studio exec said ‘No one is going to know the difference’

Julia Roberts posing a ceremony
Julia Roberts at the 2019 Rita Wilson Star Ceremony. Pic credit: ©ImageCollect.com/Carrie-nelson

Screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard revealed that in 1994 a studio executive suggested they cast Julia Roberts in the role of former slave turned abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.

In a recent publicity Q&A interview, Gregory Allen Howard explained that the suggestion was made many years ago when the movie was in its early planning stages.

He said one studio head (who he did not name) called the script “fantastic” in a meeting and then said, “Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.” When it was pointed out to the exec that Roberts couldn’t play Harriet, they responded with “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”

Howard put this down to there being a different climate in Hollywood 26 years ago. He said it all changed with the success of 12 Years a Slave and only continued when Black Panther became a hit.

He revealed the details of the strange casting request in an interview with Focus Features.

The actual role of 19th century anti-slave abolitionist, Tubman, is played by British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo in the new film.

Social media registered its outrage with many people commenting on the ignorance of the unnamed studio executive.

There was some online debate over whether Roberts, as an actor, should be allowed to play Harriet Tubman.

Most people online just mocked the idea.

According to TMZ, Harriet Tubman’s great-great-great-grandniece, Tina Wyatt, suggested that the African-American community would have boycotted the movie had Roberts been cast. She claimed that the executive was insulting black people by inferring that they didn’t know their history.

Hollywood is no stranger to blackface controversy, with some of the most notorious examples being John Wayne’s portrayal of Genghis Khan, Mickey Rooney’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Laurence Olivier’s Othello.

Harriet is in theaters now.


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