harriet julia roberts

Focus Features

How Julia Roberts playing Harriet Tubman became a meme

Paging Scarlett Johansson...


Stacey Ritzen

Internet Culture

Posted on Nov 20, 2019   Updated on May 19, 2021, 10:32 pm CDT

In the year 2019, we are (hopefully) behind the paradox of cis, straight white actors playing characters of color or varied sexual orientation. But that has not always been the case—not by a long shot. It’s only been a few years since director Cameron Crowe took flack for casting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in the 2015 film Aloha. Likewise, even less time has passed since Scarlett Johansson played the Japanese character of Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 film adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell. And it was certainly not the case in 1994, when screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard had the idea to turn the life of slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman into an inspirational biopic.

In both a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed and Focus Features interview from earlier this month, Howard opened up about the long journey and challenges he faced bringing to life the story of such an inspirational American hero to the big screen. And not the least of these challenges apparently involved which actress would bring the iconic figure to life.

“This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,” Howard recalled to the Times, of a meeting with a studio exec at the time. “Fortunately, there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman. The president replied, ‘That was so long ago. No one will know that.'”

“No one will know that!!!” Pretty sure that is not true, for at least anyone who even remotely paid attention in like, grade school.

As Howard’s comments began to circulate this week, people unsurprisingly had thoughts, jokes, and memes at the extreme caucasity of even the mere suggestion that a popular white actress star as Harriet Tubman.



And honestly, what better use of the “gonna tell my kids” meme than this Harriet Tubman casting controversy:

With all this ridicule being thrown around right and left however, an important thing to keep in mind is that poor Julia Roberts never even asked for this!


ScarJo, on the other hand, is still more than fair game.

Unfortunately, Johansson was only 10 years old in 1994 when Harriet was first being pitched to studios, but man, what a missed opportunity!


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*First Published: Nov 20, 2019, 12:01 pm CST