Harriet screenwriter says studio boss suggested Julia Roberts for Harriet Tubman biopic lead role

Katie Rosseinsky
Stunning: Julia Roberts at the premiere for Money Monster: Tristan Fewings/Getty

The screenwriter of a new Harriet Tubman biopic has claimed that a Hollywood executive suggested Julia Roberts should play the slavery abolitionist.

Tubman, who was black, played a pivotal role in leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

British actress Cynthia Erivo plays Tubman in the recently released biopic Harriet, which was written by Gregory Allen Howard.

However, the film could have been very different according to Howard, who discussed the long development process in an essay for the Los Angeles Times.

Biopic: Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in the new film (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The writer, who has also worked on films including Remember The Titans and Ali, said that an unnamed president of a Hollywood sub-studio was eager to make the film in 1994 but suggested casting Roberts in the lead role.

He reportedly said: “This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”

Howard said that when it was pointed out that Tubman, who died in 1913, was black, the president replied with: “That was so long ago. No one will know that.”

Casting misfire: A studio exec backed Roberts for the role (Getty Images for #SeeHer)

Had Roberts been cast in the role, it would have marked another major instance of Hollywood whitewashing, which sees white actors play non-white characters.

Scarlett Johansson was criticised for her role in 2017 sci-fi film Ghost In The Shell, which was based on a popular Japanese comic series.

Other star,s including Emma Stone (who played a character of Asian heritage in the film Aloha), Angelina Jolie and Jake Gyllenhaal, have also previously been criticised for playing non-white characters.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter users were by turns outraged and baffled by the revelation.

Howard spent two decades trying to get Harriet made and credits the success of films such as 12 Years A Slave and Marvel’s Black Panther with opening the door for his project.

“#OscarSoWhite, DiversityHollywood and the other pushes and protests for inclusion and diverse storytelling had moved the needle: the climate had changed,” he wrote.

“It’s no accident that Harriet went into production nine months after the release of Black Panther.”

With additional reporting by Press Association.

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