Not that anyone should be surprised by Hollywood’s penchant for questionable casting decisions, but this one seems genuinely insane: a studio executive once suggested Julia Roberts (THE Julia Roberts) could play Harriet Tubman (THE Harriet Tubman), despite a, uh, pretty significant difference between the two women. Not that that’s stopped anyone before!
Indeed, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote the screenplay for Harriet with director Kasi Lemons, dropped the aforementioned tidbit in both in an L.A. Times essay and in a Q&A published on Focus Features’s website, noting that the casting suggestion was made about 25 years ago. “The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then,” he said in the Q&A. “I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.’”
It gets worse:
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.”
I do not doubt that executives are, in fact, this stupid (history certainly suggests as much), and that this very incident happened, and that no lessons were learned from it. Hollywood has a long and terrible history of whitewashing people of color, fictional or otherwise, and though I assume, perhaps naively, that a Julia Roberts Harriet Tubman biopic would have never actually made it to the big screen, the fact that even one person suggested it paints a pretty bleak picture.
Anyway, the good news is, Harriet made it to the big screen, with an excellent Cynthia Erivo in the title role. Roberts does not appear to be in it at all, which I’m sure she’s just fine with.