Could you imagine Julia Roberts as the legendary slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman? That could have happened, according to the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard. He recently stated that when he signed on to begin working on the film in 1994 a studio executive suggested the "Pretty Woman" actress step into the role of Tubman because "no one is going to know the difference." In a recent Q&A, published in an L.A. Times essay this week, Howard told the story of how different times were back then.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,'” he claimed, but not everyone was on board with the idea of Julia Roberts playing the film's star. “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,'" said Gregory Allen Howard. He then went on to explain how "the climate in Hollywood … was very different" some 25 years ago then it is today.
The Films That Paved The Way:
Of course, Roberts was never cast as Harriet Tubman. Instead, the film "Harriet," which was released over two decades later, stars Cynthia Erivo. Howard credits important movies like "12 Years A Slave" and "Black Panther" for helping their feature film get off the ground. “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.
He also explained their reasoning for casting Erivo as Harriet Tubman. “I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in 'The Color Purple,'” he 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.'”
As soon as the Julia Roberts suggestion was exposed, fans took to social media to air out their frustrations at Hollywood executives. “Umm..I’m guessing Julia Roberts would very much like to be excluded from this narrative," one person tweeted, quoting Taylor Swift's famous line. "I think this Julia Roberts Harriet Tubman s--- shows you just how stupid Hollywood executives are," stated another. Memes are going off at the news, with one person writing, "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.”
"Harriet" follows the tale of the powerful Harriet Tubman who escaped from slavery and changed the course of history when she helped others get free too. Besides Erivo in the starring role, the film also features Leslie Odom Jr., Taylor Swift's boyfriend Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters and more. After being in development since the 90s, it was finally released in theaters on November 1, 2019. As of this post, neither Julia Roberts or Cynthia Erivo have addressed the backlash.