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A Hollywood Executive Once Suggested Julia Roberts Play African American Abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Understandably, the Internet is not impressed

Julia Roberts is a talented actor. She can play just about any role. Except for an African American abolitionist like Harriet Tubman. Not that you’d ever expected anyone to suggest that she should… only, someone did. 

26 years ago, screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard (who brought us Remember the Titans and Ali) wrote a script for a biopic about Harriet Tubman. 

Having studied her life as a history major at Princeton University, Howard had a lot of adoration for the political activist. “This small woman single-handedly threatened the billion-dollar industry of slavery. Harriet was bigger than life,” Howard told Focus Features. “She must have been terrified every time she went back to the South, but she kept going back to save more people. If that doesn’t inspire you, then nothing will.”

When the question arose about who should play the inspirational and iconic role, an unexpected name was put forward. 

“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 revealed.

“There was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman,” he added, to which the president reportedly replied, “That was so long ago. No one will know that.” 

Harriet Tubman was a hero in African American history, who escaped slavery and helped free approximately 70 other slaves. So yes, many people will know that she was a black woman and no, it’s not okay for Julia Roberts to play her.

Someone must have talked some sense into him because thankfully that was the end of that idea. 

In fact, the whole script was scrapped at the time.

Harriet Tubman

Finally, 26 years later, Howard has made his Tubman feature film a reality. Harriet premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Tony winner Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet, alongside Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles and Clarke Peters.

“I first saw [Cynthia] when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in ‘The Color Purple,'” Howard said. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite.'”

Cynthia Erivo was actually another controversial casting, as she’s not African American either. 

For me, this film is my valentine to black women. I wanted them to be able to go to the movies on Saturday and see this young black woman take on this incredible power structure and triumph over it,” Howard said of his ultimate aspiration for the film.

Harriet premieres in Australia in February 2020.

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