Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” has proven to be a box office hit for Focus Features with $32 million and counting after opening in theaters November 1. The movie was decades in development, and it appears that before the project went into production there was at least one shocking casting suggestion. According to “Harriet” screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard, a studio executive once pitched Julia Roberts to play the iconic abolitionist Harriet 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,’” Allen said in a Focus Features interview published this month (via the Los Angeles Times). “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.’”
The Julia Roberts-led “Harriet” pitch happened in 1994. Flash forward 25 years and the film has been released with Tony winner and “Widows” breakout Cynthia Erivo in the title role. An interesting note was brought up on Twitter by “The Daily Show” writer and producer Daniel Radosh, who mentioned that “get Julia Roberts” was a common industry phrase to reference Hollywood’s limited vision. The phrase was so common that Robert Altman used it numerous times in his Hollywood satire “The Player.”
As for “Harriet,” Allen said it was impossible to get backing for the project for years because Hollywood was hesitant to fund films centered around black leads. “When ’12 Years a Slave’ became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now,’” Allen said. “Then ‘Black Panther’ really blew the doors open.
Erivo has earned strong reviews and some Oscar buzz for her leading role as Harriet Tubman. In an interview with IndieWire, “Harriet” director Lemmons said the only the way the film works as powerfully as it does is because of Erivo’s performance.
“Like Harriet, who was tiny, muscular, fast, strong, fierce, and West African, Cynthia is also a tremendous force of nature,” Lemmons said. “Together, we really tried to invoke Harriet, with Cynthia preparing herself in every way you could possibly be prepared to play the role — physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. So by the time she showed up on set for the first day of filming, as soon as she put on the costume and we did the first take, it was like, oh my god, there she is. There’s Harriet.””
“Harriet” is now playing in theaters nationwide from Focus Features.