Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed that when he first pitched the biopic about iconic black abolitionist Harriet Tubman at a ‘studio sub-label’ 25 years ago, an executive wanted Julia Roberts to play the role.
In an essay in the Los Angeles Times, Howard shared that the ‘then-president’ declared that it was too far removed for people to be concerned about Tubman’s race as a black woman.
‘That was so long ago. No one will know that,’ the studio president responded on why he wanted Roberts – who is white – to play the role.
The awkward exchange marked the rocky start of the 25 year journey of ‘Harriet’ to the big screen, which is currently in theaters, starring Cynthia Erivo.
Tubman’s legendary story has long been one deserving to be on the big screen. Cicely Tyson historically played Tubman in the 1978 TV movie ‘A Woman Called Moses,’ which followed the abolitionist in her early days building up the Underground Railroad.
Harriet and Cynthia: Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed that, when his biopic was first set up at a ‘studio sub-label’ 25 years ago, an executive wanted Julia Roberts to play the black abolitionist
The real deal: Tubman – whose birth name was Araminta Ross – suffered at the expense of her slave masters as a child, even suffering a traumatic head injury as a result
Tubman – whose birth name was Araminta Ross – was abused at the hands of her slave masters as a child, even suffering a traumatic head injury as a result. But that didn’t stop the trailblazer, who stood at just five feet tall, from securing her own freedom in 1849.
The abolitionist would take several trips to the South to free enslaved folks, even brandishing her own guns when nervous escapees were tempted to go back.
Tubman would eventually serve in the Civil War as a nurse and also managed to recruit black soldiers.
Tubman escaped in 1849. The abolitionist would take several trips to the South to free enslaved folks, even brandishing her own guns when nervous escapees were tempted to go back
In his piece for the Los Angeles Times, 57-year-old screenwriter Howard said that Harriet was his first screenwriting assignment, and it was first set up with John Watson and Pen Densham, partners in Trilogy Entertainment.
While the producers loved the script, the studio wouldn’t make it because Trilogy was exclusive to the studio, leading to Howard shopping it himself.
He added that, once he became a commercial screenwriter on movies like Remember the Titans and Ali, he would ‘sneak in’ a pitch for Harriet.
Howard ultimately realized that Harriet would not be made until, ‘the environment in Hollywood changed.’
He said he ultimately put Harriet on the shelf only to dust it off every few years, but he was told ‘no’ each time until 2013, when 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar.
Two years later he brought on producer Debra Martin Chase, producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg and co-writer/director Kasi Lemmons, but even then, it still took a few more years to get the movie off the ground.
He added that last year’s box office blockbuster, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, changed it all, adding it was ‘no accident’ that Harriet finally started production nine months after Black Panther hit theaters.
‘That was so long ago. No one will know that,’ the studio president replied, which marked the rocky start of the 25 year journey of Harriet Tubman to the big screen, which is currently in theaters, starring Cynthia Erivo
The writer-producer also said that he first knew Cynthia Erivo was right to play Harriet Tubman after seeing her Tony-winning performance in The Color Purple on Broadway.
‘I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple,’ Allen said.
‘As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, “Yes, that’s Harriet.” Afterwards I emailed the other producers, “That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite”.’
People took to Twitter to voice their shock and bewilderment with the Roberts revelation.
People took to Twitter to voice their shock and bewilderment with the Roberts revelation
‘Julia Roberts is somewhere minding her damn business,’ shared one user
Others found themselves perplexed that the executive would try to pull a fast one over the public’s eye
Others put Roberts face on the $20 bill and suggested that she replace Tubman there as well
‘Julia Roberts is somewhere minding her damn business,’ shared one user.
Others found themselves perplexed that the executive would try to pull a fast one over the public’s eye.
Others put Roberts face on the $20 bill and suggested that she replace Tubman on the planned bill as well.
Erivo has already won the Hollywood Breakthrough Award for Actress of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards earlier this month.
The actress – who is British – received fierce backlash for tweets that appeared to mock the African American experience. She at one point even tweeted about talking in a ‘ghetto accent’ and has been questioned for her support of Nigerian writer Luvvie Ajayi – who has repeatedly been called out for anti-African American sentiments.
As awards season starts heating up, it remains to be seen if Ervio and Harriet will be among the big contenders for Oscar gold.
HARRIETT TUBMAN: AN AMERICAN HERO
Harriet Tubman – whose birth name was Araminta Ross – was born into slavery in Maryland but as with many enslaved peoples, her exact birth date and birth place is unknown.
Tubman worked as a field hand but experienced abuse at the expense of her masters. One such abusive incident even saw her suffer a traumatic brain injury. In 1849 she fled the plantation on which she had been enslaved.
After escaping, she made several trips back to the South to help lead other slaves to freedom via a network called the Underground Railroad.
Heroine: Tubman was born into slavery and grew up on a Maryland plantation, escaping in her late 20s. She returned to the South to help hundreds of slaves to freedom and later worked as a Union spy during the Civil War. She died in 1913
The Underground Railroad was a network of people who provided shelter and assistance in freeing slaves from the South.
It began in the late 18th century, though it’s unclear exactly when, and continued through the Civil War.
Slaves were guided by people, dubbed conductors, to designated hiding places that included homes, churches, schools and the like.
Tubman was known for her no-nonsense attitude on the Underground Railroad, even while standing at just five feet. She would carry a small pistol and was said to pull the weapon out when slaves wanted to return back to the plantation.
After the war, she settled in Auburn, New York. She cared for her parents and other family members and helped former slaves start new lives after escaping servitude
Some routes on the Underground Railroad stretched through Ohio, Indiana and Iowa, while others went through Pennsylvania, parts of New England and/or Detroit toward Canada.
Tubman is said to have served as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War.
After the war, she settled in Auburn, New York. She cared for her parents and other family members and helped former slaves start new lives after escaping servitude.
Tubman died in 1913 from complications stemming from pneumonia. She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery
Tubman’s first husband, John Tubman, was a free man. Still, she remained a slave until she fled for Pennsylvania in 1849. John did not join her on that journey.
She was nicknamed Moses, a moniker that came about because both she and Moses, the biblical figure, led their people to freedom during times of bondage.
There was a large bounty on Tubman’s head and yet she continued to return to the South to help slaves escape to freedom.
There were also threats to her physical well-being under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Tubman had one daughter, whom she and her second husband, Nelson Davis, adopted after the Civil War ended.
Eventually, she released a biography.
Tubman died in 1913 from complications stemming from pneumonia. She was buried with military honors in Fort Hill Cemetery.