The new Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet would have been an entirely different kind of movie if one studio executive previously attached to the project would've had their way. In an interview about the movie with Focus Features, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard spoke about when he was first brought on board to pen the movie for Disney in the early '90s. It probably became clear pretty quickly that the project wasn't going to work out with the studio, as according to Howard, one of the execs in charge of the movie was adamant about casting Julia Roberts in the lead role.
From the interview, here's what Howard said about Julia Roberts potential casting in 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.'"
"Whitewashing" in film has long been a controversial topic, but this particular suggestion is particularly egregious. Born into slavery and suffering horrific abuse from her masters, Tubman managed to escape, dedicating the rest of her life to helping other slaves. This includes embarking on over a dozen missions to rescue many slaves using the secret network known as the Underground Railroad. Needless to say, her story as an escaped slave who rescued so many others is nothing short of incredible, and there's no reason to depict her in such a drastically different way. With all due respect to Roberts, who did not make the suggestion herself, casting her in the role would have been incredibly insulting to the real Harriet Tubman's legacy.
Harriet wound up spinning its wheels in development hell for many years, but Howard says the success of 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther helped open the door for the movie to be made. Cynthia Ervio would ultimately be the actress to land the role of Harriet Tubman in Harriet, starring alongside Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles, and Vanessa Bell Calloway. As described by Focus Features, the movie tells the "extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America's greatest heroes." The movie is directed by Kaci Lemmons, who will be honored for her work on the movie at the Critics Choice Association's Celebration of Black Cinema ceremony next month.
Harriet is currently playing in theaters. Critics have been particularly impressed with Erivo's performance in the lead role, so all's well that ends well. As for Roberts, she'll always have Erin Brockovich. You can read the full interview with Howard at Focus Features.