‘Harriet’ Screenwriter Says a Studio Exec in 1994 Wanted to Offer the Role of Harriet Tubman to Julia Roberts

Don’t worry, no one actually offered it to her

Last Updated: November 19, 2019 @ 10:11 PM

In a Los Angeles Times essay, “Harriet” screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard detailed his 25-year effort to make a feature film biopic about Harriet Tubman — including an anecdote where a studio executive once made the insane suggestion of getting Julia Roberts to play Tubman.

In the essay, published Tuesday, Howard writes that in 1994, he had been working with production outfit Trilogy Entertainment while writing the first draft of what would become “Harriet.” Through that working relationship, he was able to pitch the film to the president of an unidentified “studio sublabel.”

According to Howard, the sublabel president told him, “This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.” Tubman was, of course, an African American former slave-turned-abolitionist, who personally carried out 13 expeditions into slave states that rescued approximately 70 people from slavery in the years before the Civil War.

“Fortunately,” Howard said in the essay, “there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman.” Even so, according to Howard, the unnamed studio exec tried to dismiss that concern, saying “That was so long ago. No one will know that.”

Roberts had no involvement whatsoever with the production, and no one offered the role to her. Howard says the studio ultimately passed on making the film, and because Trilogy was “exclusive to the studio,” they were forced to part ways; Howard continued his efforts to make the film over the next two and a half decades.

The eventual film, starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role, was released Nov. 1. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who co-wrote the script with Howard, it also stars Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn and Janelle Monáe.

The identity of the studio and studio exec were not disclosed in Howard’s essay. Representatives for Trilogy did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TheWrap.

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