The bizarre revelation came as a historical drama based on Tubman’s life, Harriet, hits US cinemas next month with Cynthia Erivo in the titular role. It has been a long journey for the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, who first started working on the project in 1994 — and was instantly met with some big roadblocks.
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In a Q&A published this month, explained that “the climate in Hollywood 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.’ 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 recalled.
Born into slavery in 1822, Tubman escaped and helped approximately 70 others flee slavery using the so-called Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses to the US north and Canada. She later became an activist for the women’s suffrage movement before dying in New York in 1913.
Howard explained that it was only relatively recently that two important films had lit the path for Harriet to get made.
“When (2014’s) 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,” he said.
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That film became the highest-grossing movie of 2018, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Thankfully, “Julia Roberts IS … Harriet Tubman” was never a sentence we had to hear in a movie trailer — but many on social media are today marvelling at the sheer insanity of the suggestion:
What I imagine the tension in the room was like in that general meeting when that studio exec suggested to Julia Roberts that she could play Harriet Tubman.
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) November 20, 2019
This is the same energy I would’ve needed from 1994 Julia Roberts if they’d greenlit her as Harriet Tubman pic.twitter.com/X9PotQMflP
— X (@XLNB) November 20, 2019
Clicking “Julia Roberts” trend. pic.twitter.com/EsH9e3ciRG
— Mandy Cochran (@intinylines) November 20, 2019
Thinking about Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman like pic.twitter.com/TUDctSEB0u
— Allahpundit (@allahpundit) November 20, 2019
Yes, it is entirely believable that a Hollywood exec, 25 years ago, would suggest Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.
These are the same people who were greenlighting Pauly Shore movies at the time.
— Jay Caruso (@JayCaruso) November 20, 2019
– Julia Roberts has to play Harriet Tubman now… pic.twitter.com/Q6ohkBsDEd
— Irate Swami 🔮 (@Babybob2121) November 20, 2019
I’m sorry, but I’m just imagining Julia Roberts screaming, “TO FREEDOM!” in blackface and… pic.twitter.com/GTcPWZYsfV
— X (@XLNB) November 20, 2019
They really was going to try to push Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman because it was “so long ago” and “know one would notice.” pic.twitter.com/SyM4y6Cn3D
— ✨🐝 Jennifer L. (@MsJLaw) November 20, 2019