In a recent interview, “Harriet” screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard said that when determining casting for the biopic, a Hollywood executive had allegedly floated the idea of Julia Roberts playing the iconic abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman.
In a Q&A for “Harriet” studio Focus Features, as well as a piece for the LA Times, Howard was asked about the production history of the film, his first Hollywood assignment at the time.
The screenwriter said the climate in Hollywood was very different back then, and recalled being told about one “then-president of a studio sublabel” allegedly saying at a meeting: "This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman."
Howard wrote in the Times piece:
“Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman. The president replied, 'That was so long ago. No one will know that.'"
Eager to voice their opinions on the story, netizens were split in their comments, with many genuinely disgusted by the alleged incident.
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
i keep thinking about julia roberts playing harriet tubman and i cannot breathe ???? pic.twitter.com/MveB8eodEW— josh (@thejoshuagrant) November 20, 2019
I want to thoroughly apologize on behalf of all white people for our immense stupidity— Jonathan Reilly (@jmr123123) November 20, 2019
How many black women in film has Julia Roberts been suggested for that she doesn’t even know about???? Was Julia Roberts almost Nina Simone??? Bessie Smith?!?!?— Jordan Crucchiola (@JorCru) November 20, 2019
Hollywood-sized FACEPALM pic.twitter.com/mwnLqrMb4F— SportsGirl (@lifeafterdawn) November 20, 2019
I swear they do everything to not cast black or brown people, they will rewrite history to not do it.— SGTweets (@SgTweeties) November 20, 2019
What happened, Scarlett_Johansson already booked to play Frida Khalo?— ♡ (@mind_arson) November 20, 2019
Some users deplored the fact that actress Julia Robert’s name was trending in connection with the story, pointing out she had nothing to do with this narrative.
Why is Julia Roberts named but not this studio exec?— Billy Flynn (@billymflynn) November 20, 2019
They’re dragging JR’s name but not the studio exec’s? ????????♂️— Cinephile_PH (@moviememoriesph) November 20, 2019
#JuliaRoberts is probably sitting somewhere like... pic.twitter.com/C8ux8SVGpT— Nousheen (@noushy) November 20, 2019
Others on Twitter were skeptical, and recalled recent instances of “unorthodox” casting.
But a Black Achilles and a black female James Bond is totally fine?— Maximilion (@_maximilion) November 20, 2019
That’s double standards and Soy bs
Come on though. A black James Bond is ok, a black thomas Jefferson is ok? Double standard at its finest.— 49ers (9-1) (@49erhausen) November 20, 2019
Some wondered if the incident ever really happened, as it sounded more like an “urban legend."
Although it's so ludicrous that it seems fake, with the feel of an urban legend. Or a joke of the "Hollywood producer" genre: "An optimist sees the glass as half full, a pessimist sees the glass as half empty, while a producer asks, 'Does it have to be a glass?' "— Thomas Gudeli (@Thomas_Gudeli) November 20, 2019
Remember that people tell made up stories to drum up press for movies.— Ryan Alexander (@RyanPA17) November 20, 2019
Me waiting for the facts because this feels like a troll. pic.twitter.com/NxZRA4Sctr— cheezit (@cheeezits_) November 20, 2019
Others argued that the incident might very well have happened.
I was working at a studio 25 yrs ago and I definitely recall this being talked about on the lot. It sounded as if the exec had no clue who Tubman was when he seriously suggested Roberts for the role. When informed that Tubman was black, he replied, "Does she have to be?"— Thomas Gudeli (@Thomas_Gudeli) November 20, 2019
There were Twitter fans who genuinely believed the alleged studio executive may have been oblivious as to who Tubman was.
A lot of white people of a certain age have no idea who Harriet Tubman was. Like I am sure he legit thought the producers were bringing him a script about a little-known historical figure. #JuliaRoberts— Princella D. Smith (@princellasmith) November 20, 2019
In the Q&A, Howard credited the success of films like “12 Years A Slave” and “Black Panther”, with black themes and black actors, for paving the way for “Harriet.”
“When I started on Harriet, many people dealing with black material were writing history lessons — which I hated,” he continued. “I saw her story as a genre piece. That’s exactly what I wanted — to make her story accessible to a mass audience.”
The film Harriet, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 10 September 2019, and was released theatrically in the United States on 1 November, is a biographical film about Harriet Tubman who was born into slavery but escaped and became an abolitionist.
Be free or die. Watch the official trailer for #HARRIET, the unbelievable true story of Harriet Tubman. In theaters this November. pic.twitter.com/HcSUX4ZkAA— #HARRIET (@HarrietFilm) July 23, 2019
The iconic political activist helped rescue 70 people from similar circumstances using what became known as the Underground Railroad.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard, it stars British actress Cynthia Erivo as Tubman.
A biography about Harriet Tubman had been in the works for years, with several actresses rumoured to star, with Erivo eventually cast in February 2017.