A biopic based on the extraordinary life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman was released earlier this month and stars Cynthia Erivo as the titular star. Harriet's screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, revealed he first started working on the movie 25 years ago and that one Hollywood studio executive suggested Julia Roberts to portray the former slave.
In a Q&A that was published earlier this month by the film studio Focus Features and revisited in an essay published by the Los Angeles Times on November 19, Gregory opened up about working on the idea for the film in 1994.
He told Focus Features, “I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.'”
“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,'" he explained.
Ultimately, Julia, 52, was not cast in the role and the movie was shelved until 2019. Gregory attributed the film's debut to two other movies that paved the way for more African-American representation on the big screen.
“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,” he continued.
The Remember the Titans writer also recalled how he found Cynthia, 32, to play the iconic role of Harriet. "I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple. As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite,'” he said of the British actress and singer.
The biographical film went through several actresses that included Viola Davis, who was rumored to star. Harriet is in theaters now and also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monáe.