A Studio Executive Wanted Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

Brenda Watkins
November 20, 2019

When screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard was trying to get his biopic on Harriet Tubman produced, he heard that a Hollywood studio executive suggested Julia Roberts portray the African American activist.

"I first saw her when the other producers flew me to NY to see her in The Color Purple", Allen said.

He says that he was told by the studio head: "This is a great script. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman". Now that he and director Kasi Lemmons finally brought his passion project to the screen, maybe he can write a script about the movie business, and his time traveling through the sort of industry where someone in a position of enormous power might suggest casting Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman. When Howard, the only black person in the room, reminded the president that Tubman was black, he reportedly replied, "That was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference'".

"Two films really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made".

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"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", he added. But she is not Harriet Tubman.

A biography about Harriet Tubman had been in the works for years, with several actresses rumoured to star, with Erivo eventually cast in February 2017. In 1849, she fled to Philadelphia, after which a reward for her recapture was posted. 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. The abolitionist hero, who lived in Auburn, N.Y., also served as an armed scout and spy for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

The film Harriet, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on 10 September 2019, and was released theatrically in the United States on 1 November, is a biographical film about Harriet Tubman who was born into slavery but escaped and became an abolitionist.

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