Studio executive in the ’90s wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman

Julia Roberts at premiere of "Red Corner"

Harriet, the bio-pic of Harriet Tubman, came out at the beginning of this month. It’s made a modest box office so far, and I wonder if that’s mostly a product of not enough advertising and support for the film (I didn’t know it was already out) and maybe it’s not at every theater? Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, the iconic anti-slavery warrior who helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad. She was a spy for the Union Army too, during the Civil War. Her life story is fascinating and a bio-pic was definitely overdue. Various people were trying to get the bio-pic done for years, and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard recently described how the conversations around the “Tubman bio-pic” have changed in 26 years. Apparently, in the early days… some studio executive wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman. Oh.

A Hollywood studio executive once suggested the idea of Julia Roberts playing the iconic abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman in a biopic, according to Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard.

In a recent interview, that has gone viral on social media, Howard was asked about the production history of the long-gestating Tubman biopic which became Harriet. The scribe said it was his first Hollywood assignment and that it had been in development for 26 years. “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 adds: “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.”"

Later in the same passage, Howard says that the production of Harriet was helped by the recent success of films with black themes and black actors. “Two films really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made. 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,” said Howard.

[From THR]

Twenty-six years ago would have been 1995. You have to understand one thing, in defense of this nameless studio executive: Julia Roberts was truly up for ALL of the movies. She was the ‘90s version of Jennifer Lawrence. If the role called for a woman aged 16 to 60, they called Julia Roberts, no matter what, no matter the race. So no, it actually doesn’t surprise me that some hive-mind dumbass in the ‘90s was like “F–k it, let’s cast Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman.” And to defend Julia… clearly, she showed no interest. If she wanted to play Harriet Tubman, we would still be talking about that f–king time that Julia won the Best Actress Oscar in 1998 for playing Harriet Tubman.

Meanwhile, it’s 2019 and I bet Scarlett Johansson is still seething that she wasn’t cast as Tubman.


Photos courtesy of WENN, ‘Harriet’.

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75 Responses to “Studio executive in the ’90s wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman”

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  1. Kittycat says:

    I am looking forward to hearing if julia has a response.

    But I am surprised I am still surprised at the idoicy of people.

    • Becklu says:

      If she said no, or it was never offered not sure what she could day. But it could be interesting.

    • Trashaddict says:

      Well, I never travelled in those circles, but wasn’t cocaine still going up noses in those days? That particular brand of idiocy speaks to drug-fueled enthusiasm.

  2. Rogue says:

    Sadly as laughable at this is, I can see a 90s movie exec actually saying this.

    • Rapunzel says:

      Yep… I wonder if they were gonna put her in blackface. Anthony Hopkins played Othello in blackface in 1981.

      • Jerusha says:

        So did Olivier in 1965. And probably others if we did a search.

      • Rapunzel says:

        Jerusha- oh sure, blackface was quite common. I used Hopkins as an example because it’s the most recent movie I can think of with it.

      • Jerusha says:

        Yeah, it’s hard to imagine anyone so stupid to try that today. It was stupid in 1981. I understand the desire of great actors to play the premier Shakespearean roles, but things that might have floated in theatre at one time just don’t translate to film.

      • eto says:

        I’m betting they would have made her into some White Savior type of character.

      • lucy2 says:

        I imagine they wanted to take the story and script and twist it into something else. I would hope they weren’t THAT stupid as to think Julia could actually play Harriet Tubman.
        But then again…maybe they were.

      • Kebbie says:

        I think they’d just change the race of Harriet and she’d be a white savior

  3. Rapunzel says:

    Ugh. The response to this story by some people has been so gross. I actually read someone defend this and say they should have cast her because Hamilton “made all the white people blacks and latinos.”

    • Jadedone says:

      Slightly off topic but I’m going to see Hamilton in February but I’m Canadian so my knowledge of American history is limited. Do I need to know the history before seeing it?

      • Kebbie says:

        No. It’ll be entertaining regardless. The lyrics explain everything that’s going on. You could listen to the songs ahead of time if you wanted to familiarize yourself.

        I wasn’t sure if it’d be popular in London given that it’s about the American revolution and it mocks the King, but it’s still running there.

      • Algernon says:

        No! Especially because it takes some liberties with history. It’s probably better if you don’t know the history, because then you can just enjoy the story without getting hung up on the discrepancies.

      • Jadedone says:

        Thanks so much guys!

      • lanne says:

        most Americans don’t know American history, and only history aficionados of Revolutionary America would note any discrepancies. The POC casting is really powerful, both in connection to the immigrant experience, and the language of the musical, which is hip hop. It makes perfect sense for the casting to be what it is for both of these reasons. For anyone who has read Maus by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel about the relationship of a Holocaust survivor and his American-born son), not being able to accept the reasons behind the casting of Hamilton is like not understanding why the characters in Maus are portrayed as animals. No one would say (I don’t think–wypipo will wypipo sometimes) that Maus doesn’t make any sense because the Nazis are portrayed as cats and the Jewish people as mice.

      • Bella Bella says:

        No, but if I were you, I’d buy the CD or stream it (however you listen to music) and listen to it obsessively between now and then. The lyrics come at you fast and every word matters.

        It was only after multiple listenings (ie, in my car for 3 months) that I could hear each song whole, so by the time I saw the show, I could really appreciate the staging/dancing and the acting and seeing everything in context, because I understood what they were singing.

        Also, IT’S SO GOOD. What a fantastic thing that you are seeing!!

    • Algernon says:

      People totally ignore that the casting of Hamilton was done to emphasize the common themes of the immigrant experience, whether those immigrants are people of color migrating to America today, or a white man emigrating two hundred years ago. I got into this someone back when Hamilton was all the rage, and he just totally refused to understand the point being made through casting. He only saw it as a license for white people to play characters of color in return.

      • Amelie says:

        Unfortunately my mom is like this too and she’s SEEN Hamilton. She liked the show but she doesn’t understand the POC casting and we’ve had arguments about her trying to say having George Washington portrayed by a black man is “racist.” She won’t shut up about how I guess when Miss Saigon first went on Broadway, there was a huge outcry about the fact that the main characters were played by white people and that they weren’t Asian (not sure how they resolved that one since I was young when that went all down). So therefore she thinks she’s allowed to make the same case for George Washington… it truly disturbs me she can’t see the difference.

  4. My3cents says:

    1995, Really? Wow it seems like something that could have only orginated in the 60′s. Thank God for small mercies ( and that Scarjo was too young).

  5. DaisySharp says:

    I doubt Julia was ever stupid enough to do this, she’s smarter than Scarjo. Not a high bar. I’ve zero doubt Scarjo would, today, in 2019, take this role. And believe she’s the best person to tell it.

    • Christina says:

      Daisy sharp: nail, meet head. You are so right about Scarjo. Her stupidity about minority struggles blow my mind. I WAS a fan. She’s like Tom Cruise to me now. Ugh…

  6. Chisey says:

    Good lord studio exec. I bet Julia Roberts never even heard about it, and it was just something these idiots said in the room. Or I hope so anyway 🤞

  7. Snazzy says:

    Lol I love the ScarJo line. You know she tried to get the role, and probably complains about how it’s easier for the coloured people now. Maybe a’m projecting but that’s the kind of person I imagine her to be.

    Thank goodness this never happened

  8. BlueSky says:

    This doesn’t surprise me. I think they tried to do this with CRA.

  9. wellsie says:

    Ignoring all this bonkers stuff to say I saw the trailer for Harriet and it was captivating. I will definitely watch it.

  10. Becks1 says:

    oh man, thank goodness we were saved from that, lol!

    I don’t know why Harriet isn’t doing better, I think the film could have been promoted more. But I also think its going to be more of a slow burn type of film, one that people go to see over their upcoming breaks and I bet it ends up doing okay overall at the box office.

    • Gingerbread says:

      I know on Twitter I’ve seen people hate that Cynthia Enrivo was picked to play Harriet. I guess Cynthia has had a history of saying gross and offensive things about African Americans, as she is British. I saw a lot of people protesting her, and therefore the movie.

  11. Michael says:

    I believe Julia Roberts family was very deeply involved with the civil rights movement and were associated with the MLK family so I think not only would Julia have turned that role down she may have slapped the person who offered it to her

  12. Mtec says:

    Yeah Scarlett playing Harriet would be a stretch, but tbh she shines as the tree in that picture with Harriet above. Perhaps we don’t give her credit enough for her amazing transformative performance.

  13. Elisabetta says:

    This is insane. It’s all I have to say.

  14. Becklu says:

    I think the truly shocking thing is that the studio exec didn’t think people would remember who Harriet Tubman was!! Like really she’s one of America’s largest figures.

    • Joanna says:

      Yes, that is really crazy.

    • Algernon says:

      A ton of people don’t know who she is. She is only just starting to get her due in American history.

    • Mumbles says:

      I read this story and just assumed the studio exec was so stupid and privileged he or she never bothered to learn who Harriet Tubman was.
      Casting was truly bad in the 1990s. Remember the soft-porn “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore (and her character’s colonial-era hot tub?)

  15. Monicack says:

    Something nice something nice…
    They didn’t make Harriet run in thigh high boots?

  16. stepup says:

    The reason the movie hasn’t done well is because there has been a huge backlash against it in the black community for several reasons. Just a quick look at black sites and influencers will explain. I’m actually kinda surprised that writers on this site still don’t include black sources or have any idea what is going on in the black community. There was a HUGE backlash against this flick, in large part because of Erivo.

    • Leigh says:

      @ Stepup – Are you referring to the controversy regarding Erivo being a British woman, of Nigerian descent, playing a Black American heroine or the white savior narrative? If it’s the former, I think that particular criticism is a bit silly. It’s nothing like a woman (i.e. ScarJo) wanting to play people of color. If it’s the latter, then the criticism seems warranted though I haven’t seen the film and can’t offer an informed opinion.

  17. Nev says:

    Hive-mind dumbass. I’m crying from laughter.

  18. LW says:

    My friend and I saw the movie last weekend. It was decent, but we both said that, especially the first half, seemed more like a PBS TV movie. Not bad, just not stellar acting and overly dramatic music, etc. The second half was a bit better. Overall we just felt like Harriet Tubman deserved more than this movie delivered.

    I was not aware of any controversy with the lead actress, but maybe that’s my white privilege showing.

  19. TheOriginalMia says:

    The utter gall to believe no one would know the difference. Pretty sure black people would know the f’ing difference. The absolute gall of this nameless exec to think people would accept a white woman playing one of our icons in a movie.

  20. chitowngal says:

  21. Veronica S. says:

    I literally cannot believe we’re sitting here appreciating the PR sensitivity and social consideration of Julia f*cking Roberts. My God.

  22. mk says:

    ” If she wanted to play Harriet Tubman, we would still be talking about that f–king time that Julia won the Best Actress Oscar in 1998 for playing Harriet Tubman.”
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ hahahaha!!! thanks for the LOL, I can go finish my quilt now…

  23. rosamund12 says:

    I don’t know if I would take this too seriously. It’s just too far fetched. Julia Roberts? Maybe if they had floated the name of someone who was of colour, but clearly toward the whiter end of the spectrum. It sounds it was a joke, or someone making a cynical/sarcastic comment about the realities of getting stuff made in Hollywood. Like– we can’t even get this made with Halle Berry… how about Julia Roberts?

  24. Tiffany says:

    I am ready for every black actress in HW to be on the list to play Bill Gates in the you know it is coming biopic.

  25. ME says:

    Some of the complaints about the Harriet movie are based around the fact Harriet is not the main character in the movie ! It didn’t show a lot about who she really was and the amazing things she did, but instead used a White man as the main character saving everyone. It’s b.s. from what I’ve heard.

    • LW says:

      I’m not being a smart@ss, I saw the movie this weekend, but also saw Joker. I don’t recall a white man saving everyone. It was clearly Harriett Tubman. I didn’t even love the movie, but she was definitely framed as a badass who got s^*# done despite people telling her she shouldn’t/couldn’t. The only white characters I recall as being prominent were the the a-hole plantation owners. I could be totally blanking out on a character though, it’s possible. Lol!

      • ME says:

        Hey I didn’t see the movie. I saw an interview where they were talking about why the movie is problematic and this is what they said. Others have pointed out something similar. The movie didn’t dive into ALL that Harriet did, it just skimmed the surface. They also said the movie portrayed it as if the White man helped her more than what happened in real life. I don’t know. You may be right, I can only go by what I’ve heard about it.

    • LW says:

      So I went and found an article about this after reading your comment because I was genuinely curious (spoiler alert): one issue was that it showed a black bounty hunter helping to find Harriett when all the white plantation owners were looking for her. That part is true, there was a black man “hunting” Harriett along with the white people. I can see how that’s problematic. I thought it was problematic while watching it. I totally get that criticism.

      I am a white woman so I understand my opinions are not needed here, but I’ll give my observation. The article I read said the problem was Harriett’s owner being seen as a white savior. I did not get that vibe at all. He was horrible. Yes, she let him live at the end when she could’ve killed him, but she mutilated him and humiliated him. Which, I would guess as a horrible white plantation owner, may have been worse. Because a strong, black woman did that to him (and deservedly so) then he had to go face the other gross plantation owners who were also hunting for Harriett. I’d be curious to hear the take on this particular part from a PoC who has seen the movie, their opinion would be far more necessary than mine, not that it’s their job to explain it to me.

      • ME says:

        Hey thanks for sharing this info. Like I stated I have not seen the movie yet and am just going by what others have said. By the way, your opinion matters too, why wouldn’t it ?

    • LW says:

      I probably didn’t state that well, I meant the article I read said there were criticisms that some people thought it was too white saviory (totally a word. Lol). I didn’t share that opinion, but as a white person I’m probably not, nor should I be, the best opinion on how PoC feel about the movie.

      I thought the movie could’ve been better. I thought Harriett Tubman just deserved more than what this movie gave. But I did still learn something. Somehow I had no idea she was also a civil war hero. I’m not sure how I didn’t, but it’s true. I’d still recommend the movie to people.

  26. Badrockandroll says:

    I have vague memories in my head of this being a punchline in Altman’s “The Player” (made in 1992 about the movie biz) … that everyone wanted to cast Julia Roberts as the female lead.

  27. Renee says:

    Scarlett Johansson in…..The Rosa Parks Story….I kid but I guarantee Scarlett would try to give it a go!

  28. Prairiegirl says:

    Peak Hollywood.

  29. Christin says:

    1995…A year before Mary Reilly came out. Julia took flak because she could not get the character’s accent right at all.

    I could completely envision an executive thinking Julia could bring an audience, before her star got burnished by the Mary Reilly fiasco. She was basically good at playing herself somewhat playing someone else. Her acting reach was far more limited than many realized.

  30. kerwood says:

    I’m not surprised. There are several films based on true stories where they’ve changed the race of one of the characters. Hollywood executives aren’t any more evil or stupid than the general population. It’s their job to know what the majority of people want to see.

    America has yet to come to terms with the enslavement of people of African descent. Too many Americans choose to believe that slaves were standing around in cotton fields waiting to be rescued by Union soldiers. Nobody wants to hear about the thousands of Black slaves who freed themselves and their families and the acts of rebellion where slaves fought against the people who enslaved them. There always has to be a White saviour involved somewhere (hi Brad Pitt) to make the White audience feel better.

    I haven’t seen ‘Harriet Tubman’ yet but I look forward to seeing it. Many of the people she freed came to Canada and created their own towns and settlements that still exist. I’m waiting for the day that Canadians take a look at the history of African-Canadians and realize it didn’t start with liberated slaves. I know that there are problems with the film but I don’t expect a movie to be perfect. I’m just happy it got made.

  31. Diana says:

    Okay, as someone born in 1995, I need to say it: that was NOT 26 years ago!! It was 24 years ago, thank you very much. 26 years ago was two years before that, so 1993.

  32. Miriam says:

    Not surprised knowing how scarlett Johansson didn’t lose ANYTHING for PUBLICLY saying she’s entitled to do EVERYTHING!! she’s still thriving with her bigotry+ double standards of working & supporting directors accused of sexual harassment!!