In the years before Harriet became a reality, apparently a version of the movie could have been made that featured Julia Roberts in the title role of Harriet Tubman, the former slave best known for being one of American history's most prominent abolitionists, and a conductor on the underground railroad. Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter and producer who has been working to get Harriet made for 25 years, says that an early draft of the script attracted the attention of an executive who latched onto the idea of Roberts in the role and, when told that Tubman was a black woman and Roberts was not appopriate casting for the historical epic, argued that "it was so long ago," audiences would not know the difference.
In today's marketplace, such a change would be borderline impossible to sell, and certainly would not be something most executives would suggest (it would feel more likely to be some oddball art film if it were to happen), but it was not that long ago that movie studios thought it would be easier to sell Roberts in a role for which she was not at all appropriate than any actress of color.
“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 told Entertainment Weekly. “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.'”
The role ultimately went to Cynthia Erivo, but that took 25 years and, probably, a number of iterations to get to production. The movie was released last week. Kasi Lemmons co-wrote and directed the film.
Based on the thrilling and inspirational life of an iconic American freedom fighter, Harriet tells the extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman's escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes. Her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
Allen also credited the ascendancy of movies that dealt with themes of slavery and the negative effects of colonialism, in part, to the success of Black Panther.
“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,” Allen said.
You can catch Harriet in theaters now.