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Who thought it was OK to suggest that Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman?

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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This month, a biopic of the trailblazing activist starring Cynthia Erivo hits cinemas. But if some of the film’s early producers had their way, a white woman would have taken on the role. 

The year 1994 doesn’t seem that long ago. It was the year of the Winona Ryder Little Women and the original The Lion King, the year of Kurt Cobain’s death and Oasis’ success and the boom of MTV.

It was also the year that Julia Roberts was one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, courtesy of her Oscar-nominated turn in Pretty Woman a few years prior. Naturally, studio executives were eyeing her for every major role in Hollywood at the time. Not so naturally, one of those roles was Harriet Tubman in the first major biopic of her life.

Tubman, for those not familiar with the trailblazing activist, remains one of the most celebrated figures in African American history. Born into slavery, she escaped to become one of America’s most prominent abolitionists. Over the course of her life, she ran 13 rescue missions to save some 70 friends and family through the Underground Railroad. After the American Civil War ended, Tubman became a key figure agitating for a woman’s right to vote. She died in 1913 at the age of 91 and has since become one of the most recognisable and famous black women in US history. 

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Harriet: everything you need to know about Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman biopic

Please explain, then, why studio producers would want Julia Roberts – a white woman – to portray such an iconic black woman on the silver screen? 

Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter of Harriet, this month’s biopic of Tubman’s life, recalled the reaction to his script in 1994. “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 said, as per Entertainment Weekly. “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.’”

1994 doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet for most of us it’s a year within our lifetimes. That these kinds of whitewashing attitudes existed within Hollywood, within our lifetimes, is shocking. And yet, these attitudes have existed in the film industry as recently as 2015, when Emma Stone was cast as an Asian woman in Aloha, or 2017, when Scarlett Johansson was also cast as an Asian woman in Ghost In The Shell

Howard went on to stress that these kinds of attitudes have only shifted in the film industry since the success of films like 12 Years A Slave and Black Panther. “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,” Howard said. 

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet
Cynthia Erivo was cast as Harriet Tubman in the first biopic of her life.

Ultimately, Roberts was not cast as Tubman, despite the appalling comments of that studio executive. Instead, the production company went with BAFTA-nominated Cynthia Erivo, the British star of the stage and screen who wowed the film’s producers when they saw her in a staging of The Colour Purple on Broadway. (She has also starred in Widows and Bad Times At The El Royale.)

“I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Colour Purple,” Howard said. “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.’”

Harriet is in cinemas in the US now and in the UK on 22 November. 

Images: Getty, Focus Features

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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