Harriet Tubman was an African-American woman born in the early 1800s.
The operative word is “African-American.”
So, when it was announced that Cynthia Erivo, a British woman of African descent, would play the iconic Underground Railroad conductor, many were outraged. The arguments still persist, leaving many in the Black community in a helpless debate. However, no one is in debate about another name that studio execs reportedly suggested.
According to Entertainment Weekly, at least one Hollywood honcho wanted “Miss Pretty Woman” aka Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.
As confusing as that sounds, it allegedly was an actual suggestion that rolled off the tongue of a white executive in 1994 when “Harriet” screen writer and producer Gregory Allen Howard, first brought the project to Hollywood.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, explained to the LA Times. “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.’” Howard said the conversation happened back in 1994, but it still raised eyebrows.
Luckily somebody came to their senses and did NOT to cast Roberts, a white woman, as the legendary BLACK abolitionist.
The script took 25 years to come to fruition. During that time, there were many other films with slave narratives that Howard believed only helped to prove that such movies could be box office profitable.
“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.
Howard also defended the casting choice of Erivo, an African-British actress, who was criticized for her views on African-Americans.
Efforts to make a movie about Tubman have been going on for several years, with Viola Davis (who Erivo co-starred with in Steve McQueen’s “Widows”) once in line to play the part. But the project came together around Erivo, a casting choice some have criticized because she isn’t American.
“I first saw her 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.’”