A new biopic following the life of noted abolitionist Harriet Tubman has finally hit theatres, starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role.
But before Erivo earned the role, there was one very big name suggested to star in her place: Julia Roberts.
Yes, the exact same Julia Roberts you’re thinking of right now. America’s sweetheart. To. Star. As. Harriet Tubman. Yes, the exact same Harriet Tubman you’re thinking of right now. The American abolitionist who escaped slavery and rescued 70 others through the Underground Railroad.
Before we all lose consciousness, though, it should be pointed out that this suggestion was made more than two decades ago, but still …
In a Q&A this week to promote the film, screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard said that when the film was first pitched nearly 25 years ago, “the climate in Hollywood was very different.” You don’t say.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” Allen said. “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.’”
Considering that being black seems especially key to this particular role, and although times were different in the early 90s, it still would have been shocking to see Roberts playing Tubman.
Some of the worst instances of whitewashed casting came over 50 years ago, with Mickey Rooney playing a stereotypical Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Laurence Olivier donning blackface for Othello .
Even just in the last decade, though, we’ve seen Jake Gyllenhaal play Persian in Prince of Persia ; Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton as ancient Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings ; Emma Stone play a woman of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in Aloha , etc.
Allen noted that due to the recent rise in films featuring black casts, Harriet was finally able to move forward. He said, “When 12 Years a Slave became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019