In case you didn’t know, Harriet — the historical drama chronicling the life of African-American icon Harriet Tubman — is a project that’s been long in the making. Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard had been trying to bring her to life on-screen since 1994 but back then, things were very different.
Harriet, which stars Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, could’ve looked a lot different 25 years ago had the studio then had its way. Originally set up at Disney, Howard recalled how he wanted to showcase the title character as a superhero, and one studio head voiced his opinion on who he thought should be cast. “This script is fantastic,” he recalled the exec saying, first in a Q&A with Focus Features, which he then followed up with an essay published in the L.A. Times. “Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”
Now, ponder that for a minute, if your mind isn’t already blown. Because if you’re thinking that maybe there’s another Julia Roberts in Hollywood, one who isn’t best known for Pretty Woman, Steel Magnolias and Hook, let us assure you that no, there isn’t. There’s only one Julia Roberts and we can all agree she doesn’t exactly have the right look to play a black abolitionist and political activist. No one is that good an actor.
And just when you thought the mind of a studio exec couldn’t get any more detached from reality, it did. After someone helpfully pointed out that Julia could not in any way play Harriet, his response was so out-of-touch, your head might explode: “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.” We understand. We’ll give you another minute.
Fortunately, Roberts wasn’t cast and decades later, Howard believes it was 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther that opened the doors wide open and allowed Harriet to be made the way he envisioned: less historical drama, more action-adventure movie. “I remember someone asking, ‘Is Harriet Tubman really supposed to be a superhero?’ That’s exactly what I wanted—to make her story accessible to a mass audience,” he said, further explaining, “For me, this film is my valentine to black women. I wanted them to be able to go to the movies on Saturday and see this young black woman take on this incredible power structure and triumph over it.”
And while Roberts is a wonderful actress, the part of Harriet was pretty much made for Erivo. “I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple [for which she won the Tony for Lead Actress in a Musical in 2016],” said Howard. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet… she’s a little stick of dynamite.'” Now that’s an explosion we’d much prefer experiencing over seeing Julia in the role.
Roberts’ casting would have been ludicrous, even by 1994 standards. Though, arguably, it would be premature to say that the same ideas aren’t floating around today, given some recent casting decisions that have raised more than a few eyebrows. (Think Emma Stone in Aloha, Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart, Matt Damon in The Great Wall, and Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods and Monsters.)
Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons, is currently in theatres. Along with Erivo, whose performance has generated Oscar buzz and could take her to EGOT glory, the film also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe.