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Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts to Play Harriet Tubman

'That was so long ago. No one will know that' Tubman was black, exec said in 1994
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2019 8:52 AM CST
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in a scene from "Harriet."   (Glen Wilson/Focus Features via AP)
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(Newser) – Audiences adore Harriet, the film released this month chronicling Harriet Tubman's real-life efforts to save herself and hundreds of other slaves in the mid-19th century. But "it took 25 years before Hollywood was ready" for her story, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard writes at the Los Angeles Times, noting "the then-president of a studio sublabel" had suggested Julia Roberts for the lead role during Howard's first big meeting on the project in 1994. When Howard, the only black person in the room, reminded the president that Tubman was black, he reportedly replied, "That was so long ago. No one will know that." There were too many "racist rejections" to list before a break came 25 years later, as Hollywood experienced a "climate change" and embraced "diverse stories," Howard writes. But others argue Hollywood whitewashing is far from over.

The Washington Post lists more recent examples cited on social media, such as Angelina Jolie's role as a mixed-race journalist in 2007's A Mighty Heart, Jake Gyllenhaal's casting as an Iranian prince in 2010's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Johnny Depp's portrayal of a Comanche member in 2013's The Lone Ranger, Emma Stone's turn as a half-Asian pilot in 2015's Aloha, and Scarlett Johansson's role in the 2017 adaptation of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell. Playwright Wajahat Ali urged people of color in the industry to "stay sane and grounded as you deal with this madness" as some drew attention to reverse examples, including the casting of a black actress in The Little Mermaid. Writing at the Guardian earlier this year, Steve Rose noted such castings help "to correct a systemic imbalance" while whitewashing threatens "to perpetuate that same imbalance." (Read more whitewashing stories.)

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