Hollywood exec wanted Julia Roberts to portray Harriet Tubman
Famous screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard wrote his 25-year journey waiting for his screenplay Harriet to be produced.
In 1994, the then president of a sublabel studio praised his work. "This is a great script. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman." When corrected by a black person who was present in the studio meeting, the president commented "That was long ago. No one will know that."
Producers John Watson and Pen Densham, partners in Trilogy Entertainment, called Howard in to discuss the commissioning of a script about Harriet Tubman. It was supposed to be his first assignment. While Trilogy loved the script, the studio informed him, after writing another draft, that it has no plans to move forward with "Freedom Fire." Watson stated that the script was "dead". In response to Howard's determination to have this produced, Watson said "You're the producer now; shop it and try to get it made."
Then, Howard continued his narrative
From that day in 1994, that’s exactly what I did. I never stopped pushing “Freedom Fire” (“Harriet”) down the track. The number of doors slammed in my face, the number of passes, the number of unreturned phone calls, canceled meetings, abandonments, racist rejections, the number of producing partners who bailed, are too many to list. And later I foolishly used my status as a commercial screenwriter to get meetings and then sneaked in a pitch for Harriet Tubman’s story. Bait and switch.
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What I realize now is that the film was not going to get made until the environment in Hollywood changed — Hollywood had to go through its own climate change. Nobody in Hollywood wants to be an outlier. Hollywood has a herd mentality. There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves. All the people I pitched this to, submitted the script to, were asking themselves one question: “How do I sell this story to my boss, to a studio, to my financial partners?” Fear chilled them.
After the success of "12 Years", Howard found producer Debra Martin Chase. WME agent Danny Greenberg now had the agency to back the project up.
While Julia Roberts did not play the main character, a good thing, the movie still received backlash as it casted black British actress Cynthia Erivo. This is for the sole reason that she's not African-American.
The movie Harriet is now in theaters.