Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, is in theaters nationwide now

By Jen Juneau
November 20, 2019 11:16 AM
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Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty; Tommaso Boddi/FilmMagic

It was once suggested that actress Julia Roberts portray abolitionist Harriet Tubman, according to a new interview with screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard.

In a Q&A that was published earlier this month by film studio Focus Features, Howard — who co-wrote the screenplay for this year’s Tubman biopic Harriet — said that when he started on the path to make the epic film over two and a half decades ago, a studio head suggested Roberts, 52, for the titular role.

“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then,” Howard told Focus Features. “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 that while the unnamed executive’s suggestion was met with resistance by the studio, some in the room said, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.’ ”

Social media users quickly responded to the executive’s obviously since shut-down idea, with people expressing how appalled they were by the idea of a white actress portraying the famous 1800s-era slave-turned-abolitionist.

“Full offense: if your instinct, when telling a former-slave abolitionist story, is to turn the SLAVE into a WHITE SAVIOR … Just … Even if you ignore the ‘political correctness’ aspect, the blatant disrespect for HISTORY, shows you have no business making this movie, PERIOD,” one user wrote.

“They want Julia Roberts A WHITE WOMAN to play Harriet Tubman A BLACK ABOLITIONIST who was a SLAVE. Make it make sense,” said another.

In Harriet, Tubman is portrayed by black British actress Cynthia Erivo.

Harriet Tubman, Julia Roberts
| Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty; Tommaso Boddi/FilmMagic
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet
| Credit: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Harriet is in theaters nationwide now.