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Screenwriter Says Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts To Play Harriet Tubman Back In 1994

L-Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images R-Photo by MPI/Getty Images

Tone deafness reaches further back than the 90s, but this one from that decade is especially striking.

Reportedly, back in 1994, when the film Harriet was in development, Gregory Allen Howard (screenwriter and producer of the film) was pitching the film to a studio executive, when the executive seemingly out of nowhere, suggested that Julia Roberts play the titular role of Harriet Tubman.

Yes, that Julia Roberts, and yes, THAT Harriet Tubman.


Understandably Howard was very confused.

Howard, recalling the moment, said:

“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’.”

People might have known the difference, considering White people were not kept as slaves in the United States. And no, indentured servitude is not the same thing since at the end of their service, indentured servants were free people eligible for citizenship.

Mercifully, in 2019, Cynthia Erivo has instead been cast in the role, which Howard says he is thrilled with.

“I first saw [Cynthia] when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple.  As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite.’”

Despite the attempted caucasity, a racially accurate version of Tubman’s story is currently in theaters.

Alongside Cynthia Erivo, the film also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn and Janelle Monáe.


Sometimes, we couldn’t agree more.


Written by Mike Walsh

Mike is a writer, dancer, actor, and singer who recently graduated with his MFA from Columbia University. Mike's daily ambitions are to meet new dogs and make new puns on a daily basis. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @mikerowavables.