In 1994, someone thought it'd be okay for Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman
By some metrics, Hollywood has improved its practices when it comes to the mission of "diversity and inclusion" in the last two decades. But, given Hollywood's historical treatment of people of color, more specifically Black people and their stories, it's not hard to find examples of mind numbingly bad ideas. Take the latest tale circulating the internet: According to Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote the script for the upcoming film Harriet, when he pitched the script to a studio executive in 1994, the executive suggested Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, Howard detailed the interaction. “This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,” the executive reportedly told him. At the point, the only Black person in the room then informed the man that Tubman was a Black woman. “That was so long ago. No one will know that," the man responded.
That interaction is how Howard sets up the 25 year long saga that took place in trying to get his script made into a movie.
"What I realize now is that the film was not going to get made until the environment in Hollywood changed — Hollywood had to go through its own climate change," Howard wrote. "Nobody in Hollywood wants to be an outlier. Hollywood has a herd mentality. There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves."
Howard credited the commercial success of other films that told the story of Black characters for the eventual production of his script. He wrote that nine months after Black Panther was released, Harriet finally began production. Cynthia Erivo, not Julia Roberts was cast as Harriet Tubman.
Roberts hasn't yet commented on the situation, but it's possible she's not aware that she was once floated to play one of the United States most important Black historical figures.