"Harriet" screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard says it went down 25 years ago and the exec had no idea Tubman was black ... but what he said next was even worse!
If one studio exec had had their way, audiences would have gotten a Harriet Tubman biopic a quarter of a century ago ... and it would have been terrible.
That's because according to "Harriet" screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard, a "then-president of a studio sub label" had actually suggested Julia Roberts for the role of Tubman after reading his script.
Of course, there's no way Roberts would have ever signed on to something so tone-deaf, but that's because she knows something this unnamed executive apparently did not.
"Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman," Howard wrote in a Los Angeles Times piece on the new film. But it was his response to that simple statement of fact that would prove just how ridiculously out-of-touch at least some portions of Hollywood apparently were even as recently as 1994.
According to Howard, "The president replied, 'That was so long ago. No one will know that.'" Considering Harriet Tubman is one of the cornerstones of American history where it relates to the institution of slavery, you'd certainly hope people know she was not a white woman, and knew it then, too.
It's a good thing Howard was patient with his script, because the climate is now right to tell her story in a fresh way different from how black narratives have traditionally been told in Hollywood.
"When I started on 'Harriet,' many people dealing with black material were writing history lessons — which I hated," Howard told Focus Features. "I remember someone asking, 'Is Harriet Tubman really supposed to be a superhero?' That's exactly what I wanted."
Howard's vision is an action-adventure film with mass appeal, as opposed to one only target history aficionados, and he credits the groundbreaking success of "Black Panther" and "12 Years a Slave" for pushing the narrative forward in Hollywood as to what kinds of stories can be told with black leads.
Cynthia Erivo portrays Tubman in Howard's "Harriet," in theaters now.