Harriet, which tells the story of Harriet Tubman, only hit screens at the start of the month, but it’s been decades in the making; the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, has been working on it for a full 26 years. His approach was admittedly a bit unorthodox: “I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie,” Howard said in a recent interview with Focus Features, adding that his goal was to make Tubman into a superhero. “For me, this film is my valentine to black women. I wanted them to be able to go to the movies on Saturday and see this young black woman take on this incredible power structure and triumph over it.”
But unorthodox doesn’t even begin to cover it when it comes to the idea that Howard said a studio executive floated in a meeting about the film in 1994. “The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then,” Howard continued. “I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.’ 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.’
Where to begin with this suggestion? In case you, like the executive, need a refresher: Tubman, who was born into slavery, was a famed abolitionist, key conductor on the Underground Railroad, and American hero. She returned to slaveholding states nearly 20 times to help dozens of others escape slavery, long after she herself had escaped to the North. (You can read more about the real-life story behind Harriet, which is the first feature film to center solely around her story, here.) Skilled as she may be, Roberts, is a white woman.
Thankfully, the film’s titular role ultimately went to Cynthia Erivo, and the film finally made it to the big screen. (Howard credits the box office success of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave and 2018’s Black Panther for paving the way.) Thanks to a new article in the L.A. Times, however, on Twitter, the drama is just beginning.
At this point, we would like to express our deepest condolences to Roberts, who has unwittingly been dragged into the darkest of narratives. The studio executive, on the other hand, remains unnamed.