In November 2019, just after the film Twitter was outraged over news that white actor Julia Roberts was “suggested” by a studio executive to play Harriet Tubman, a black woman and a former slave turned abolitionist hero:
Julia Roberts was suggested to play Harriet Tubman by studio exec, says Harriet screenwriter https://t.co/5d3RLKVIB1
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) November 20, 2019
Memes popped up in response to the viral brouhaha, one depicting Roberts in Tubman’s spot on the American $20 bill:
A common response to the rumor was that Harriet and Roberts’ purportedly proposed casting was “Scarlett Johansson all over again,” referencing repeated controversies involving Johansson’s roles in films:
I’m going to make the great assumption that all of us screamed (inside) when reading that Julia Roberts was a favourite to play Harriet Tubman in a biopic. Yep, Hollywood’s really outdone itself this time. It’s the kind of story that would normally be labelled as ‘fake news’ found floating around in the depths of social media, garnering enough momentum to eventually go viral.
It would then be debunked and we’d all continue with our lives unscathed … Earlier this year, [Johannson] was criticised for playing a transgender character in the movie Rub & Tug, with many believing the opportunity should have been given to a real life transgender person. Scarlett later doubled down on her insistence that she had every right to play the character, stating she ‘should be allowed to play any person, or any tree’… I’ll stop there because I know you’re eye rolling as much as I am.
In the above-quoted editorial published by British tabloid Metro, its author laments the fact that the claim Julia Roberts was nearly cast as the titular character in Harriet is not “fake news.” That reserved skepticism appeared in another headline calling the controversy “sadly believable,” a hint that the claim might be misrepresented.
According to headlines, a studio executive responded to another’s objection by saying that Tubman’s life had taken place so far in the past no one would notice the actor portraying her was white:
When someone pointed out Harriet Tubman was black, “the president replied, ‘That was so long ago. No one will know that'" https://t.co/kf4jK2pYc5
— Variety (@Variety) November 20, 2019
Many articles cited the same November 19 2019 Entertainment Weekly piece, titled “Julia Roberts was suggested to play Harriet Tubman by studio exec, says Harriet screenwriter.” In its third paragraph, Entertainment Weekly noted that the purported suggestion had actually taken place 25 years earlier — in 1994:
If you were to think of the most out-of-left-field actress to play Harriet Tubman in a movie, you still wouldn’t stumble upon the person one executive allegedly suggested.
Harriet, the historical drama based on Tubman’s life released earlier this month, stars Cynthia Erivo. But the film’s screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, says when he first started working on the movie in 1994 that one studio executive suggested Julia Roberts to portray the legendary slave turned abolitionist. Yes, that Julia Roberts.
In a Q&A with Allen published earlier this month by Harriet studio Focus Features (and reiterated in an L.A. Times essay published Tuesday), Allen recalled how “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” some 25 years ago.
Entertainment Weekly sourced its information from a November 1 2019 Focus Features Q&A with screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard. Roberts came up in the first answer to the first question, when Howard cited the films 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther as having opened the door for Harriet‘s quarter century in development to finally come to an end:
You’ve been working on this project for a long time. Can you give us a short history of Harriet?
Harriet, which was set up at Disney 26 years ago, was my first assignment. When I got in the business, I wanted to tell these historical stories by turning them into entertainment. I didn’t want to give history lessons. 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. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, “This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.” 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.” Two films really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made. 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.
It is true that Gregory Allen Howard recalled a 1994 meeting during which a studio head purportedly proposed that Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman in Harriet. The suggestion was problematic for a number of reasons, and it being 25 years old does not in any way diminish that. But Harriet sat in development purgatory for nearly a generation, and that suggestion was at the very beginning of talks.
There are still legitimate complaints to be made about Hollywood’s casting decisions and its diversity overall as of 2019. Despite that, this claim was presented in a somewhat misleading way.