Someone alert Scarlett Johansson, because there appears to be someone else in Hollywood who thinks white women should be able to play characters of any race.
Who is the person? An unnamed Hollywood studio exec who once suggested that Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet,” according to the film’s screenwriter, Gregory Allen Howard, who recently recalled hearing the suggestion during a 1994 meeting about making the movie that would come out… a cool 25 years later.
To answer your question: Yes, that Harriet Tubman. You know, the black activist hero who risked her life over and over to help others escape slavery. Apparently, when the only black person in the meeting pointed out the obvious (that Harriet Tubman was black) the exec said, “It was so long ago. No one will notice.” Hm, nope!
There was a different climate in Hollywood back in 1994, so it may be true that people would not have cared as much, but I like to think they would notice that a black American hero we all learned about in school was being played by a white woman. But maybe I am giving us (white people) too much credit. That tends to happen a lot.
Sadly, the fact that Harriet was in development back in 1994 and is just being released now points to how much racism has infected Hollywood. It took 25 years for a movie about a heroic black woman who shaped history to be made. Meanwhile, The Emoji Movie exists and there are approximately 35 Fast and Furious movies. We have got to do better.
This week, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard penned an essay for the LA Times, which laid out the long and difficult journey of getting this movie made. Originally entitled Freedom Fire, Howard set out to write a script about an American icon that would paint her as an action hero and entertain people, not preach to them. He churned out a script that got great feedback, but ultimately he couldn’t seem to sell it. Why not? Because racism. Back then, Hollywood wasn’t “ready” for a movie that “pushed the envelope” by telling a story about black people.
According to Howard, “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. ” People were too scared to take a chance on a script this unique and original. Again, Howard hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Nobody in Hollywood wants to be an outlier. Hollywood has a herd mentality.”
So, what changed? The successes of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther proved to Hollywood power players that audiences did, in fact, want to see black stories being told. Now there was a herd forming, and Hollywood execs were ready to jump on board.
I’m glad to see these changes happening in Hollywood, but it’s sad and disappointing that it takes so much time and repeated effort to prove the obvious: that diverse stories, characters, and representation should have a place in mainstream media. This script was great from the start, the story that inspired it has always been epic, heart-wrenching, and important. The only thing that was lacking was powerful white people willing to think outside their own understanding of success.
Harriet was released in theaters earlier this month and stars Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monae. Check out the trailer below.
And let’s get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill already.