This literally sounds like either a terrible April Fools joke or headline ripped right from The Onion, but unfortunately, it’s sadly true. Harriet’s screenwriter revealed that while the film was still in talking stages, one Hollywood studio executive suggested that the freedom fighter and slave abolitionist be portrayed by Julia Roberts.
Make it make sense.
In an interview, Gregory Allen Howard shared the head-scratching revelation while detailing the 26-year challenge to get Harriet to the big screen. The film isn’t just your typical biopic on the well-documented life of Tubman, it’s an action movie, Howard explained why he decided to put that spin on the historical figure.
“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different 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.’”
Howard then added when someone pointed out the challenge of Robert’s portraying Tubman because she is a Black woman, she responded:
“It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
You can’t make this stuff up even if you tried. Howard went on to credit the box office success of the 12 Years A Slave and Black Panther for giving Harriet a path to movie screens. “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.”
He spoke on how the film’s star, Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo earned the titular role in his movie, revealing the part was hers immediately after he saw her in The Color Purple on Broadway.
“As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterward, I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite.’”
Outside of this news, Harriet was met some with some criticism. Some due to its take on Tubman’s life story and the casting of Erivo. Harriet also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles, and Joe Alwyn.
Photo: Amy Sussman / Getty