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Harriet screenwriter says a studio head once wanted Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images for WarnerMedia)

Producer and screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard has been trying to make a movie about Harriet Tubman for 25 years, going all the way back to his first days in the entertainment industry. That project, director Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, has now finally been finished, but as Howard explains in an L.A. Times piece and an essay for Focus Features’ website, the reason it took that long is because Hollywood simply wasn’t ready for a movie about Harriet Tubman that treats her more like an “action figure” than a “history lesson.” Also, as reflected in one stunning anecdote from Howard’s journey to make this film, Hollywood has a bad tendency to be both pretty stupid and pretty racist.

As the story goes, Howard wrote a very highly-regarded script for his Harriet Tubman movie in 1994, and at some point it landed on the desk of a “then-president of a studio sub-label” (so, some big-shot movie studio exec). Howard says the president loved the script, but suggested that they “get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.” Then, after being informed that the real Harriet Tubman was a Black woman, the president responded, “That was so long ago, no one will know that.”

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It’s the kind of showbiz story that is both unbelievable and extremely believable, and while it’s easy to look at something so absurd and say “wow, Hollywood sure was dumb back then,” it seems safe to assume things just as dumb—or dumber—happen on a regular basis in the entertainment industry. Either way, Howard says that the climate in Hollywood has changed since then, partially thanks to the success of 12 Years A Slave and Black Panther. Really, his whole story of how he fought for two decades to make this one movie (in between writing other big movies like Remember The Titans and Ali) is worth reading, even beyond the fact that some rich Hollywood executive once suggested getting Julia Roberts (of all white people!) to play Harriet Tubman.

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