The Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet had been in development for years before becoming a reality. Apparently, back in the early 1990s, studio executives had a very bizarre casting preference for the lead role.
Harriet, the historical drama based on Tubman’s life released earlier this month, stars Cynthia Erivo. But the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, says when he first started working on the movie in 1994 that one studio executive suggested Julia Roberts to portray the legendary slave turned abolitionist. Yes, that Julia Roberts.
In a Q&A with Allen published earlier this month by Harriet studio Focus Features (and reiterated in an L.A. Times essay published Tuesday), Allen recalled how “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” some 25 years ago.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” Allen 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.’”
Pretty Woman does Harriet Tubman? No one will no difference? Maybe Virginia Democrats or Canadian liberals wouldn’t notice, but even before the 1990s, movies have gotten flak for using white actors wearing blackface or even portraying minorities, such as Soul Man (1986), about a white student who pretends to be black to get a scholarship to Harvard. Trading Places (1983) has Dan Aykroyd in blackface and dreadlocks. Perhaps the most notable example is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which featured Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi in the most cringeworthy way you can imagine. There are many others of course, but there’s something particularly wrong about the suggestion that a white actress should play the historical figure Harriet Tubman, former slave who helped free dozens on the Underground Railroad. I can’t even.
Harriet was released in the United States November 1, and I’m pleased to say Julia Roberts had no part in it.