Julia Roberts is known for playing several iconic roles throughout her career: Vivian in Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich, Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love. Whether she’s portraying a sex worker or a middle-class woman on her own version of a gap year, Roberts is used to playing strong, scrappy women often fighting for a purpose. Another thing her characters all have in common? They’re white women. Just like Roberts. Which is why the recent revelation that the actor was suggested to play the role of Harriet Tubman—a leading African-American abolitionist who escaped slavery and became one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad—in a biopic is so frickin’ bonkers.
Hey studio execs, ICYMI, Roberts is not Black.
In a November 1 Q&A and subsequent L.A. Times article about the recently released film Harriet, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard opened up about the long journey to getting the film made—a 26-year process. “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,” Howard said. Recalling a meeting in the early 1990s, Howard said he was told by one studio head: “‘This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.'”
I’m honestly picturing an early ’90s Roberts playing Tubman and I. AM. SCREAMING.
Even worse than that truly horrid suggestion? When Howard pointed out the *very* obvious fact that Roberts couldn’t play the iconic Tubman because, again, she is a white woman and Tubman was Black, the exec responded: “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”
Me right now:
There is *so* much wrong with this statement. Not only does it completely minimize Tubman’s courage, legacy and impact (we *all* remember who she is!), but it’s incredibly dismissive of the impact and longstanding repercussions of slavery. It actually wasn’t that long ago, and for communities affected there are still lasting impacts of it up until today. FYI, racism is still a thing.
This exec’s comments also beg the question: WTF were the movie execs going to do if they sent Roberts in as is? Re-imagine Tubman as a white woman? They weren’t even going to attempt to darken her skin? I don’t know what’s worse: using an excessive amount of bronzer à la Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart, or just erasing Tubman’s identity as a Black woman all together. For the record, there is no worse, it’s *all* bad.
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But honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised. Though Howard qualifies the comment by saying that Hollywood was different back when this meeting took place, it’s actually not all that different now. The past decade has seen a series of missteps when it comes to casting, with tons of characters of colour whitewashed on the big screen. From Emma Stone playing a character of Hawaiian and Asian descent in Aloha, to Scarlett Johansson’s casting in 2017’s adaptation of Ghost in the Shell—a remake of a Japanese manga series—that many saw as a missed opportunity for an actor of Asian descent. (FYI, Johansson is notorious for being a part of controversial casting.) As recently as 2016, a study by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication found that “Hollywood films continue to whitewash storytelling.” (It’s important to note that the same study found that, in 2019, historic highs were observed in the percentage of Black and Asian speaking characters on screen, while white characters continue to be on the decline).
We shouldn’t be surprised by Howard’s experience, but the suggestion of Roberts playing Tubman was just so obviously bad, that it’s almost laughable. And pretty much sums up Hollywood for ya.
Roberts has yet to comment on the recent news, but I’d like to think that if she *had* ever been approached for the role, she would have responded like this:
Thank god it appears that Scarlett Johansson was busy, or this film would have 100% been made 26 years ago. And we would have all suffered for it.
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