Movies & TV / Columns

Looking at the Strange Julia Roberts/Harriet Tubman Casting Story

November 23, 2019 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Julia Roberts Harriet Tubman

Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman might be one of the strangest casting ideas I’ve ever heard and that’s saying a lot. 

Hollywood has an uneven track record when it comes to both diversity and racism but this latest news has put the spotlight back on the long history of whitewash casting.

In an interview with Focus Features, Gregory Allen Howard, the screenwriter for the Harriet Tubman bio picture Harriet, spoke about his journey to get the movie made. 

His comments, understandably, were shocking. Howard has been heavily involved in bringing the project to life for more than two decades and back in 1994 a studio executive suggested that Julia Roberts, then a 27, should be cast as Tubman. 

“I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman,'” Howard said. “When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.'”

I would love to know who that executive was and where they are today. 

Reaction online is what you’d expect, with some surprising jabs at Roberts, who had nothing to do with that suggestion.

In recent years we’ve seen examples of questionable casting like when Ed Skrein was cast as Major Ben Daimio in Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen but dropped out after backlash erupted over an English actor taking on a Japanese-American character.

Or when Ridley Scott cast Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and several other caucasian actors in his Biblical movie Exodus: Gods and Kings

Or Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, even though Depp claimed some Native American heritage. 

Or Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the Ghost in the Shell adaptation of  Masamune Shirow’s manga series. 

Or Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange

Or…you get the picture. I could easily run off a couple of dozen more examples of changing a characters nationality. We all know why it’s done. That’s no secret.

And before some of you jump in the comments to point out that Michael Clarke Duncan was WIlson Fisk/Kingpin or something along those lines, you’re missing the point. 

Hollywood truly cares about only one color: Green. Money is the bottomline and they’ll sacrifice any standard to make it…as long as they can get away with it. Taking a real life hero like Harriet Tubman and believing they could get cast Roberts without any sort of backlash is the pinnacle of ignorance and quite sad. 

It’s another bad mark against Hollywood…and will be gone from the headlines within days. 

What about you? Any casting as bad as Roberts as Tubman?