More than two decades before Harriet made it to the big screen, a Hollywood studio executive suggested that Julia Roberts play the leading role of the black freedom fighter and slave abolitionist.
Harriet screenwriter, Gregory Allen Howard, shared the insane story in an interview detailing the 26-year journey to get the film made. “When I got in the business, I wanted to tell these historical stories by turning them into entertainment. I didn’t want to give history lessons,” Howard explained.
“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie. The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, ‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.’”
He added that when someone pointed out that Tubman was a black woman the executive replied, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
Howard credits the box office success of 12 Years A Slave and Black Panther with helping to get Harriet on the silver screen. “I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open.”
Harriet stars Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo as Tubman, a role that Howard says she unknowingly nabbed after seeing her in The Color Purple on Broadway. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite.’”
The cast also includes, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles and Joe Alwyn. “Nearly all” of the characters in the film are based on real people, noted Howard, who has long been intrigued by Tubman’s story.
“Even before I knew I was going to be a screenwriter, when I was a history major in college, I thought this was a corker of a story. Don’t forget she was the only female conductor on the Underground Railroad. And she never lost a passenger. Other conductors took larger groups but would invariably lose people along the way. Her goal was never to lose anyone. But there was so much more—she was a spy; she was one of the first women to lead soldiers in battle.
“But more than anything, this small woman single-handedly threatened the billion-dollar industry of slavery,” Howard continued. “Harriet was bigger than life. Harriet freeing slaves had a multiplying effect. Plantation owners were scared that enslaved people would start getting ‘ideas.’ There were always more slaves [than] white people on the plantations, but those enslaved didn’t know their own power. Harriet showed them how powerful they could become.”