In the '90s, we got close to a movie about Harriet Tubman happening. We also got one of the most ignorant casting ideas ever for the lead role.
Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed Tuesday that, during the early stages of development for the movie that would become 2019's Harriet, the executive at the studio (in 1994) pitched a white actress for the lead: Julia Roberts.
Yeah, that seems problematic. At best.
Howard recently wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, where he shared the difficult journey his script had getting to the screen. According to Howard, a “then-president of a studio sub-label” suggested that the Pretty Woman star play Tubman, the woman vitally responsible for helping slaves along the Underground Railroad.
In Howard's words, “Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago, who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman,” and then the executive replied "That was so long ago. No one will know that.”
The Harriet Tubman biopic seems like an obvious vehicle for any African-American woman inside Hollywood. And in the 1990s, there were plenty of actresses available, with enough clout, to be cast. Unfortunately, this exec did not see that.
This story speaks to both the ignorance of some executives to not even read the coverage on a project -- or delve into the history of what story they're trying to bring to the screen. Or see how terrible the optics are on casting a white woman to play a legendary historical figure that was black. Because, if that came to pass, everyone would have known that and no one would have let the exec forget it as they exited that person from the lot.
It also speaks to standing your ground as a writer.
There are lots of concessions you have to make to get your movie off the ground, but you should have certain lines you're not willing to cross.
Howard obviously was going to stand his ground, and it is good that others in the room backed him. This is certainly a strong case for why the film industry needs more diversity at the top. In the long run, casting Cynthia Erivo allowed Harriet to get made and released, and hopefully created a new star within the studio system.
Hopefully, in the next 25 years, we'll look back and feel like something like this exec's mindset is a thing of the distant past.