Some crazy stories come out of Hollywood, but this one is truly unbelievable.
The Oscar-winning actress, who is white, looks nothing like Tubman, who was black. Still, the unnamed exec thought the casting made sense.
Howard shared the story in a Focus Features Q&A written up earlier this month, as well as in an essay published Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times. The writer-producer, who worked on the script for Harriet about 25 years, said the climate in Hollywood “was very different” in 1994 when the meeting took place.
“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,’” he recalled. “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 said the person who pointed out that the casting might not work was the “single black person” in the room. In the Q&A article, he credited two groundbreaking films with helping change minds since then about the importance of realistic casting.
“When 12 Years a Slave became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open,” Howard said.
Harriet opened in the U.S. on November 1. The Kasi Lemmons-directed drama stars Tony-winning actress Cynthia Erivo as the freedom fighter who escaped slavery in Maryland, and later guided hundreds of enslaved African Americans north to freedom.