Julia Roberts is my favorite actress. But I will be the first to tell you she's the wrong choice to play Harriet Tubman, the African-American hero who famously led hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. But apparently Roberts was on the shortlist of actresses to play Tubman back in the early 1990s.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,'” screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard explained. “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.'”
Well, I think someone may have noticed.
Some of the colorful comments about the report were too good not to share.
Some studio exec thought it would be a Gr8 idea for Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman. What’s next, Tom Hanks plays Dr King? Scarlett Johansson thinks she should be allowed to play Dr Maya Angelou IF* she chooses ??????— shannon sharpe (@ShannonSharpe) November 21, 2019
Bwahaha. “This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”— Sophia Tesfaye (@SophiaTesfaye) November 20, 2019
I don’t know what’s worse: Such a suggestion or the fact that it took 25 years to finally make the film. https://t.co/f9SsSGXYMi
#juliaroberts is one of my favorite actresses. But it is racist AF to suggest her to play Harriet Tubman. Hollywood needs to give black American women the roles from their own damn heritage!— Rebecca Whitman (@RebeccaEWhitman) November 20, 2019
As some of these outraged social media users also noted, it's not the first time a white actor or actress has been considered or even cast in a minority role. Remember when the creators of Sky TV's comedy special Urban Myths: A Brand New Collection of Comedies thought Joseph Feinnes was the right guy to play Michael Jackson? If you don't that's because the episode was pulled following viewer outrage.
At the time of his casting, Feinnes defended the decision as creative license.
“I deal in imagination, so I don’t think imagination should have rules stamped on them,” he told AP. “If it promotes stereotyping, then it’s wrong. I made a distinction that the Jackson project doesn’t do that.”
Then there was Scarlett Johansson starring role in the Japanese anime movie Ghost in the Shell a few years ago instead of an actual Japanese woman. Emma Stone's turn as a part-Hawaiian and part-Chinese woman in the 2015 film Aloha is still ridiculed to this day.
Thankfully, Harriet producers abandoned the idea to cast Roberts as their leading lady and, years later, chose Broadway star Cynthia Erivo for the title role. Erivo has been largely praised for her powerful and convincing performance. Townhall attended the Washington, D.C. premiere last month to catch up with her and the rest of the cast and crew.
Harriet is in theaters now.