Julia Roberts Playing a Slave? How Hollywood Whitewashes Film

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The Harriet Tubman biopic is out, and its screenwriter, Gregory Allen Howard, shared an interesting anecdote in a recent interview. According to Howard, a studio head in an early meeting for Harriet said, “This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”

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Julia Roberts, for those unfamiliar, is a white actress. Harriet Tubman was a black woman born into slavery in 1822.

Howard said that when confronted with this fact, the executive replied, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”

Considering Harriet follows the story of an escaped slave (and American legend), we’d like to hope that people would be at least somewhat perplexed to see a white woman portray Tubman.

The Harriet Tubman Film

Harriet depicts the life of Underground Railroad pioneer Harriet Tubman, who Howard studied extensively in college. “Harriet was bigger than life,” he said. “Harriet freeing slaves had a multiplying effect…Harriet showed them how powerful they could become.”

Here’s the scoop on the new film’s star cast. (Note the lack of Julia Roberts, or any other white actors playing black characters).

  • Tubman is played by Cynthia Erivo, a British actress. Erivo won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Celle in Broadway’s The Color Purple.
  • Leslie Odom Jr., the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton, plays abolitionist writer William Still.
  • Taylor Swift’s 28-year-old boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, plays runaway slave hunter Gideon Brodess.
  • Singer and burgeoning movie star Janelle Monáe plays Marie Buchanon, a friend of Tubman’s.

Whitewashing in Hollywood

It might seem silly that an executive would suggest Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman, but whitewashing has long been a part of Hollywood tradition. Whitewashing refers to “the tendency of media to be dominated by white characters played by white actors.”

Examples of whitewashing include:

  • West Side Story 1961 – Russian-American Natalie Wood plays Maria, a Puerto Rican character
  • Prince of Persia, 2010 – Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Persian prince
  • The Lone Ranger, 2013 – Johnny Depp plays Tonto, a Native American warrior
  • Doctor Strange, 2016 – Tilda Swinton plays the role of Ancient One, originally written for an elderly Asian man
  • Aloha, 2015 – Emma Stone is cast as a character of Chinese and Hawaiian descent

Harriet is in theaters now. Go check it out–it’s a powerful and moving film, thanks in large part to Erivo’s performance.