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.
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.
— Jordan Crucchiola (@JorCru) November 20, 2019
They really was going to try to push Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman because it was “so long ago” and “know one would notice.” pic.twitter.com/SyM4y6Cn3D
— ?Kobe&Mambacita? (@MsJLaw) November 20, 2019
There was some online debate over whether Roberts, as an actor, should be allowed to play Harriet Tubman.
Sigh. OK, here we go. People are asking, "Why can't Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman? She's an actor." In a perfect world without racism, double standards & inequality, skilled actors can/should take on roles that don't box them in due to ethnicity & gender. However…1/
— Wajahat "Social Distance Yourself" Ali (@WajahatAli) November 20, 2019
Most people online just mocked the idea.
Imma tell my kids this was Julia Roberts pic.twitter.com/sPwZ70ntO2
— Mamba Mentality ? (@Rattlesnak3Rich) November 21, 2019
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.