Screenwriter and producer of Harriet – a movie based on the life of Harriet Tubman – said Julia Roberts, a white woman was suggested to portray the charismatic and fearless slave turned abolitionist by one Hollywood studio executive 25 years ago.
Gregory Allen Howard told Harriet studio Focus Features “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” some 25 years ago.
“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. “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.’”
Harriet, the historical drama based on Tubman’s life released earlier this month, stars Cynthia Erivo.
Who’s Harriet Tubman
Tubman, born Araminta Ross in March of 1822 and likely a descendant of the Ashanti people, was born into slavery. Tubman and her two brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped from slavery after the death of their master, Edward Brodess, in 1849.
One of her brothers had second thoughts and returned, thus Tubman joined them. However, Tubman escaped again, this time using the secret network of the Underground Railroad.
Tubman’s exact route is not known, but she did encounter several kind souls during her journey. Tubman traveled by the light of the North Star, using nighttime cover to avoid those who hunted her.
Escaping to Philadelphia, Tubman was living free just as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was underway. The law was stringent; even states that outlawed slavery had to comply in bringing fugitives slaves in.
The pressure to turn in escaped slaves grew as money was scarce between the newly arrived Blacks and poor Irish immigrants competing for jobs.
A large portion of Tubman’s family was enslaved in Maryland. She worked to free them with the help of some abolitionists in the region in 1850. She then went on several other journeys to help free slaves escape north and onward to Canada, which had also abolished slavery.
Word of Tubman’s daring exploits began to spread, gaining her the nickname “Moses” from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who compared her to the Hebrew prophet of the Bible.
The exact number of times Tubman returned South, guiding slaves to freedom as a “Conductor” along the Underground Railroad is conflicting: In some historical accounts, Tubman returned to parts of Maryland and the Eastern Shore region 13 times and freed around 70 slaves. Other accounts say she made 19 such trips and freed around 300.
What history does agree on, however, is that, for eight years, she was an instrumental proponent of hope and freedom for the enslaved.
Tubman, who could not read nor write, famously told an audience at one of her many speaking engagements that she was proud of the fact she never lost one “passenger” during her time on the Underground Railroad.
While her motivation to help her family was the primary goal of her involvement, Tubman was elevated to a higher status because of her benevolence and fearlessness to aid any who sought his or her freedom.