November 20, 2019

A Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

In the early '90s, a Harriet Tubman movie almost happened. At the time, the studio had one actress in mind to play the role: Julia Roberts. 

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.”

Sheesh! 

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.      

Your Comment

9 Comments

I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on this bullshit story.

November 20, 2019 at 1:53PM

0
Reply
Jake
399

Did you read the op-ed? I mean hollywood has been doing black face in film for years. This wouldn't surprise me at all.

November 20, 2019 at 5:07PM

0
Reply
Alex Alva
1207

An exec not knowing who Tubman is in the 90's is either joking or handicapped.

November 21, 2019 at 3:30PM

0
Reply
Jake
399

True diversity isn't casting black people in black only roles. If we only see black people playing black people, white people playing white people, etc. It only increases more of a split between us all. What we really need is to give everyone equal opportunity. At the end of the day, any solid actor will tell you that they are there to serve the purpose of the story, the art, not themselves. Whoever is best for the art should play the part, the actual issue is not giving everyone equal opportunity. It's acting--you don't need to cast a murderer to play a murderer.

November 21, 2019 at 10:30AM

0
Reply
Sam Mizrahi-Powell
Writer / Director
237

Seriously?!?!?!?! I can't believe the ignorance here. Equal opportunity????? Are you F'ng kidding me???

This is the exact opposite of equal opportunity. I'll just leave this here for you.

In all, as the graphic below shows, 6.4% of acting nominations of the total 1,668 since the awards began in 1929 have gone to non-white actors. Isolating for the past 25 years, only 56 actors—11.2% of the total—were non-white.

http://labs.time.com/story/oscars-diversity/

November 21, 2019 at 1:03PM

0
Reply

Sam,

This isn’t a good look for you, and I will tell you why. As a writer/director in the media of film, I assume, you have to look at the context of the film and the role before you say that you have to cast the best actor for the role. Tubman was a black abolitionist. AND most importantly she was a real person. A person who happened to have dark skin which is relevant to the story of slavery in this country. There were white abolitionists and you are free to write and direct that story with a white actor. But casting a story about freeing slaves and changing the race of the protagonist, changes the story.

I hope this is clear.

November 21, 2019 at 3:07PM

1
Reply

I'm not at all talking about changing the race of the character.

November 21, 2019 at 3:27PM

0
Reply
Sam Mizrahi-Powell
Writer / Director
237

Casting a white person as Harriet Tubman isn't equal opportunity, it's business as usual. I agree that black people shouldn't only play black roles--we need a black James Bond, a black Hermonie, a black Ariel–it's fiction and when we're creating new fictional stories we have to be inclusive. But a white woman playing a black, and especially oppressed, historical woman? That's wrong, and it just affirms white supremacy. It doesn't help us advance from our very racist past (and arguably still racist present).

November 21, 2019 at 5:49PM

0
Reply
avatar
Mike Eden
Photographer
151

Good grief.

November 21, 2019 at 2:19PM

2
Reply