Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter for Harriet, a biopic released in cinemas this week and starring Cynthia Erivo, claimed that a studio executive once stated that it was irrelevant to cast Tubman with a black actor.
“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 explained, via 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.’”
Howard wrote the script for Harriet in 1994, but struggled to get the project off the ground until 2018. Viola Davis was previously attached to the role.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Howard explained that Hollywood needed to change in order for a Harriet Tubman story to appear viable and worth telling.
“What I realise now is that the film was not going to get made until the environment in Hollywood changed,” he wrote. “Nobody in Hollywood wants to be an outlier. Hollywood has a herd mentality. There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves.
“All the people I pitched this to, submitted the script to, were asking themselves one question: ‘How do I sell this story to my boss, to a studio, to my financial partners?’ Fear chilled them.”
Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and co-starring Janelle Monae and Leslie Odom Jr, is released in cinemas on Friday.