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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.
So... wait... was the exec expecting Julia Roberts to go full-on Blackface like Birth of a Nation OR just completely ignore the source material like Emma Stone in Aloha? I HAVE QUESTIONS!!! 🤯 https://t.co/q6wvH0C41y— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) November 20, 2019
Thing is, with this administration, a Julia Roberts $20 already would have been approved. https://t.co/5S51CMMwrl— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) November 20, 2019
Julia Roberts was suggested to play who now https://t.co/iICttAtyuG— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) November 20, 2019
Julia Roberts couldn’t do Harriet Tubman, but Harriet Tubman could do The Pelican Brief.— Ira Madison III (@ira) November 20, 2019
Can’t believe that some studio head wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman! pic.twitter.com/LM1yBF1XiR— Nancy Wang Yuen (@nancywyuen) November 20, 2019
Yes, it is entirely believable that a Hollywood exec, 25 years ago, would suggest Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.— Jay Caruso (@JayCaruso) November 20, 2019
These are the same people who were greenlighting Pauly Shore movies at the time.
I read this as “Julia Roberts was suggested by Harriet Tubman to play studio exec” and it made more sense https://t.co/ax7ynNUXvv— Rembert Browne (@rembert) November 20, 2019
What I imagine the tension in the room was like in that general meeting when that studio exec suggested to Julia Roberts that she could play Harriet Tubman.— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) November 20, 2019
reading about studio execs suggesting Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman like 30 Rock didn't already do this !? pic.twitter.com/CtxNts0QIE— Liz Charboneau (@lizchar) November 20, 2019
And honestly, what better use of the “gonna tell my kids” meme than this Harriet Tubman casting controversy:
Gonna tell my kids this is Julia Roberts pic.twitter.com/EKCO3jcGzJ— Jenniggafer Hopez (@Asia_Bean) November 20, 2019
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!
ummmm... i’m guessing julia roberts would very much like to be excluded from this narrative. https://t.co/MnyF1N5bcW— susie (@banikarim) November 20, 2019
Julia Roberts is somewhere minding her damn business....— PhiDamSho® (@iAmPhiSho) November 20, 2019
Julia Roberts: pic.twitter.com/1aSFEEXbvU— PokemasterChaz99 (@PChaz99) November 20, 2019
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!
Stacey Ritzen is a reporter and editor based in West Philadelphia with over 10 years' experience covering pop culture, web culture, entertainment, and news. You can follow her on Twitter @staceyritzen.