One Clueless Movie Exec Once Suggested Julia Roberts Could Play Harriet Tubman

"It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference."

Julia Roberts
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
By Kirk Miller / November 20, 2019 12:29 pm

Hollywood’s history is littered with extremely poor casting choices: John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Emma Stone as a woman of Hawaiian/Chinese descent in Aloha. Al Pacino as a Cuban refugee / crime lord in Scarface (yes, the movie is iconic, but still…).

But the biggest whitewashing ever was thankfully avoided. In a new interview published by the film studio Focus Features (and flagged by Entertainment Weekly), one studio executive actually suggested Julia Roberts should play Harriet Tubman.

The revelation came about as part of a publicity push for the new film Harriet, a historical drama based on the life of the abolitionist. In the interview, screenwriter/producer Gregory Allen Howard shares the request of one clueless film exec.

Harriet Tubman
Cynthis Erivo as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet”
Focus Features

Harriet, which was set up at Disney 26 years ago, was my first assignment,” says Howard. “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.’”

Oof. Howard goes on to credit the success of 12 Years a Slave and even Black Panther for allowing the filmmaker to finally pursue an accurate portrayal of Tubman’s life, with African British actress Cynthia Erivo in the title role.

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