Studio exec suggested Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman, 'Harriet' screenwriter says

Erin Nyren

Multi-talented multi-hyphenate Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ biopic “Harriet.” But according to “Harriet’s” screenwriter, Gregory Allen Howard, Julia Roberts — yes, white woman Julia Roberts — was once suggested by a studio executive to play the role.

In a Q&A for “Harriet” studio Focus Features as well as a piece for the L.A. Times, Howard explained he had been working on the script for a Harriet Tubman biopic as far back as 25 years ago, but that “the climate in Hollywood…was very different back then.”

According to Howard, a “then-president of a studio sublabel” praised the script and then suggested Roberts play Tubman. “Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman,” Howard wrote in the Times piece. “The president replied, ‘That was so long ago. No one will know that.'”

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In the Q&A, Howard went on to credit “12 Years A Slave” and “Black Panther” for paving the way for a film like “Harriet,” which Allen describes as turning Tubman’s life into an action-adventure movie.

“When I started on ‘Harriet,’ many people dealing with black material were writing history lessons — which I hated,” he continued. “I saw her story as a genre piece. I remember someone asking, ‘Is Harriet Tubman really supposed to be a superhero?’ That’s exactly what I wanted — to make her story accessible to a mass audience.”

“Harriet” hit theaters Nov. 1.

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