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