Why It’s Not Funny That Julia Roberts Almost Played Harriet Tubman

I wasn’t going to even attempt to chime in on the latest revelation that’s bound to horrify actress Julia Roberts until the foreseeable future, but after taking some time to digest the shit, it was clear that there are other elements to this viral sensation that deserve highlights.

There was already much controversy surrounding the casting of Harriet, the highly-anticipated biopic, starring EGOT contender, British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo in the epic role of the real life iconic freedom fighter, and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.

Cynthia Erivo discusses her most ambitious role to date

The backstory of Erivo has been scrutinized by a bevy of disapprovers, who believe an American-born Black actress, with direct lineage to descendants of slaves would’ve been a wiser choice, in order to provide the authenticity and unparalleled homage to the historical figure of our times.

Erivo’s enviable portfolio, which includes the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her critically-acclaimed delivery as Celie Harris in the Broadway version of The Color Purple, has been predictably enhanced to secure highly sought after roles for the big screen in accordance with notable talent, and Hollywood’s ravenous desire to capitalize on the profits of “diversity.”

Whether or not we agree with the endorsed choice for Harriet Tubman’s portrayal in a modest film that has garnered mixed reviews, under the tutelage of famed director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), won’t change the truth of how Erivo will certainly not be the last Black actress to be gifted with that honorable opportunity.

And when those future projects are activated with dedication to the inspirational story about a legendary superhero, who has more than earned the treatment of a national treasure, we can be sure that the leading actress will not be “America’s Sweetheart” in the flesh — Julia Roberts.

But about 25 years ago, way before the hashtag that turned Hollywood on its ass with a quickness, was ceremoniously unleashed in response to #OscarsSoWhite nominations, an unnamed White studio executive told Black screenwriter and film producer, Gregory Allen Howard, that he would prefer Julia Roberts to play the role of Harriet Tubman.

This was in 1994, when Howard was in the beginning stages of marketing the synopsis for a specific project that would have to wait until White Hollywood would be coerced into adopting the mindset of diversity in ways that would birth historic juggernauts like the cultural movement heard around the world — Black Panther.

Depending on the preferences of industry forecasters, there’s a debate about whether it was 12 Years a Slave (2013) or the global box office titan, Black Panther, (2018), that opened the eyes of illustrious movie studios to the bankability of Black narratives, that can be readily finessed to include the “White Savior” who appears just in time to relive White audiences of their growing guilt.

Either way, we are off and running!

An industry that’s dominated by narrow-minded White males, who jerk off to the cast of Mean Girls on a daily basis, in their massive lofts, situated in expansive lots, is predictably shifting the mission statement to poach the riches from the passionate gluttony of Black, Brown and Asian moviegoers, who can’t resist these celebratory cinematic releases.

The most offensive aspect of Howard’s annoying confession is definitely the part when the now-hidden “White studio exec” pushes back on the recommendations of the lone Black participant in the room of Whiteness.

The Hollywood honcho hawked the theory of how slavery was so long ago, that moviegoers won’t even “know the difference” when attending a screening that propels the relevance of the iconic Black woman, who almost died in action for the glory of those who will love her forever.

The rest of the shit is the entangled messiness of how this rapidly circulating memo has gifted media outlets with yet another opportunity to validate the great strides that have been made, since the dire nineties, when Black actresses were regulated to mostly Black films or as background props in White films.

It was valiant of Howard, who is basking in the glow of his critical-darling, Harriet, to share the harrowing experience of failed negotiations with White studio executives, who were relentlessly committed to the global viability of White ingenues, until of course, they reach the threatening age of forty.

Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman fame was the undisputed queen of that era of “Whites only” studio entrance, and while she’s most likely stunned by the shocking confessional that casts her as the villainess, who almost played the role she wasn’t born to inhabit — we can assume that she’s also pissed off that Howard refrained from mentioning the bad guy by name.

There’s also the currency of Blackness in all its forms, and how the audacity of Whiteness creeps up with vengeance to downplay the serious repercussions, that are accrued from the horrific realization that not so long ago, White actresses were being awarded heroic roles, that they couldn’t possibly perfect under any circumstances.

White media would love to present this fractured story with the assurance that things are so much better now.

Despite the unfathomable possibility that Black actresses were out of the running, for the blessed chance of a lifetime, most outlets seem to follow the rulebook of exaggerating the wins of the current climate, when you consider how inclusivity is now the mandate that shows no sign of burning out.

Yes, shit was wild back then, but we’ve thankfully survived the dark times and advanced into the progressive era, that systemically caters to the expectations of those who were woefully ignored by the time period that refused to recognize our prowess in the categories that matter.


First off, it’s stupid as fuck that the identity of this person who was White enough to believe that only a White actress with box office mojo could play Harriet Tubman, is being withheld, as if that privilege was earned by the asshole in question.

Enough time has passed since TV echelon, Friends, was able to escape intense scrutiny for the sin of misrepresenting the heartbeat of New York City, as the exact opposite of the recognized hub of cultural magnificence, that natives and tourists can attest to.

What’s the point of talking about the shit, if you’re not really going to talk about it?

It’s quite convenient to rely on the virus of “sources” for unvetted stories, or to swath the antagonist of the “exposé of the moment” with the generic mask that produces the national uproar, that clicks cling to for endurance. At the expense of the meatier bits, where we’re supposed to be formally introduced to one of “Hollywood’s best,” who soberly takes responsibility for being a byproduct of the dark ages.

Some of have speculated that this could be a pathetic attempt by those associated with Harriet, to stealthily garner more buzz for the film, that hasn’t performed poorly, but is surely not the blockbuster, that rivals previous offerings that showcase similar themes.

But the reason why it’s not at all funny that Julia Roberts almost played Harriet Tubman, lies in the frightening prospect that we might return to that place again, where perfectly capable Black actresses with names like “Cynthia Erivo,” are sidetracked to fulfill the dubious obligations of White Hollywood at all costs.

White talents have been able to portray characters that stray very far from their instinctual grasp, all for the benefit of prominent studios, that aren’t prepared to take that gamble of summoning up the actors and actresses who fit the description, but don’t possess the “household name” that rakes in the big bucks.

It may have been a long time ago, when White people only needed White people in their movies, but that doesn’t excuse the crimes that were committed, and how it took a hashtag that went scarily viral, just a few years ago, to force the epic overhaul of The Academy.

That compromise was instituted out of fear, not the human decency that’s borne from the religion of equality.

Hollywood is still messy!

Who knows what the story of Julia Roberts, and her invisible casting of Harriet Tubman will achieve, but for me, it’s just another thorn in my side, with the brutal reminder of how the mystery of a White studio executive, is being downplayed for the narrative that tries to derail the hovering negativity.

#OscarsSoWhite has done a lot to move the needle, but as a Black woman with dark skin, I take this viral story very personally. And since I do recall the cruel nineties, I must demand that if we’re going to shame White culprits, who shaped the landscape of of White Hollywood — we must know who they are.

If Harriet Tubman has to be disrespected in such a remarkably vile way, why not expose those who dared?

After all, Hollywood endings dictated that closure.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store