Harriet Writer Says Studio Exec Suggested Julia Roberts To Play Tubman

Cynthia Erivo standing behind a tree as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

I’m sure there are plenty of cases in which a studio executive offered a filmmaker good advice, but in general, the term “studio notes” is often a shorthand way of saying “terrible advice from higher ups.” For another example of that, I present the following story. Apparently, more than twenty years ago, writer Gregory Allen Howard tried to get Harriet made. He got some positive response about the script and the basic concept of turning the story into an action-adventure… and then someone suggested Julie Roberts be considered to play the lead role.

Gregory Allen Howard told the whole story during an interview with Focus Features, and the whole thing is like one extended doubletake. Apparently, after the Julia Roberts suggestion, another executive pointed out that she couldn’t play the abolitionist and activist who was born into slavery, and the original executive fired back with this gem…

“It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”

I’ve honestly written, deleted and re-written this paragraph like three times because I’m not entirely sure what to focus on. Should the angle be that it’s outrageous and offensive to pitch Julia Roberts to play a beloved and historically important person of color? Or should we focus on the fact that this executive thought no one knew who Harriet Tubman was and/ or would notice if she was played by a white lady because we all suck at history and are uneducated rubes? I don’t know. Let’s just agree there’s a whole lot of failure going on and move on.

Fortunately, there has been much progress on the studio front the past two decades. That doesn’t mean the studio notes aren’t still bad. They’re just a different kind of bad and we’re not longer living in a world where people think Julia Roberts would need to be involved in a movie like Harriet for it to sell tickets. In fact, Harriet has pulled in more than $30M dollars at the box office (and also proven to be a pretty effective vehicle for rising star Cynthia Erivo).

As for what happened to the unnamed executive in the story, we have no idea. I, however, like to think he’s quietly been responsible for every single stupid decision made in Hollywood across all studios over the past 25 years. So, if you see a movie and it has a dumb ending, it was probably this dude’s suggestion. If you hear about an offensive casting choice, this guy’s hands were definitely all over it, and if you’re still pissed about some of the choices Game Of Thrones made its last two years, just remember they all originated in emails from this guy.

P.S. Go see Harriet.

Mack Rawden
Editor In Chief

Mack Rawden is the Editor-In-Chief of CinemaBlend. He first started working at the publication as a writer back in 2007 and has held various jobs at the site in the time since including Managing Editor, Pop Culture Editor and Staff Writer. He now splits his time between working on CinemaBlend’s user experience, helping to plan the site’s editorial direction and writing passionate articles about niche entertainment topics he’s into. He graduated from Indiana University with a degree in English (go Hoosiers!) and has been interviewed and quoted in a variety of publications including Digiday. Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, a great wrestling promo and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.