| November 20, 2019 08:21 AM
Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard said a studio executive originally recommended a white woman play Harriet Tubman in a biopic about her life.
“This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,” Howard recounted Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times after telling the tale in an interview earlier this month. According to him, the comment had come from a studio sublabel head in 1994 when the movie Harriet was first being pitched.
Howard said as the only black person in the studio, he pointed out that Tubman was a black woman and that “Roberts couldn’t be Harriet,” to which the president said, “That was so long ago. No one will know that.”
Tubman was eventually played by British actress Cynthia Erivo in the film, which premiered this month.
“What I realize now is that the film was not going to get made until the environment in Hollywood changed — Hollywood had to go through its own climate change,” Howard said.
“Nobody in Hollywood wants to be an outlier. Hollywood has a herd mentality. There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves. All the people I pitched this to, submitted the script to, were asking themselves one question: ‘How do I sell this story to my boss, to a studio, to my financial partners?’ Fear chilled them,” he added.
Tubman was a key figure in antebellum America, escaping from slavery and helping free hundreds of other slaves through the Underground Railroad. She is slated to have her likeness put on the U.S. $20 bill in 2028.