Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard Claims A Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts To Play Harriet Tubman

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Who Is Gregory Allen Howard? Screenwriter Claims Studio Exec Wanted Julia Roberts To Play Harriet Tubman

It took 25 years for screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard to get his script made into a major studio film.

While Harriet, his film about the slave-turned-abolitionist revolutionary and political activist, has largely received positive reviews, it's already seen it's fair-share of controversy.

But news that a studio exec wanted actress Julia Roberts cast in the lead role pretty much takes the cake when it comes to stories of whitewashing in film.

RELATED: Meet Cynthia Erivo: The Woman Playing Harriet Tubman In Upcoming Biopic

The film first faced backlash for the casting of British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo as American-born Harriet Tubman, given her "lack of ancestral connection to American slavery [and] compounded by tweets and retweets many believe suggest disregard and disrespect toward black Americans."

And now that Oscar buzz for Erivo is building, screenwriter Howard has revealed a far more problematic idea floated during the film's casting process.

Who is Gregory Allen Howard — and did a studio executive really want Julia Roberts to play the role Harriet Tubman?

Here's what we know about the screenwriter's shocking claims, including what Harriet Tubman's own relative had to say in response.

1. It took 25 years to bring Harriet to the big screen.

Harriet debuted at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and since then, it's become quite the smash.

Critics have said the film is as "sturdy and straightforward as the title character herself."

And while this is not Gregory Allen Howard's first film — he is perhaps best known for 2000's Remember The Titans, starring Denzel Washington and Will Patton — it is quickly becoming his most acclaimed.

To say it was an effort bringing Harriet to the big screen would be a major understatement. Speaking with The Los Angeles Times, Howard recently revealed that his first serious conversation with a studio head about the film took place in 1994.

2. Did someone really suggest Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman?

Absolutely, according to Howard, who shared that during a meeting about his initial concept for the film about Tubman, an unnamed "then-president of a studio sublabel" remarked, “This is a great script. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”

"Fortunately," Howard continued, "there was a single black person in that studio meeting 25 years ago who told him that Harriet Tubman was a black woman. The president replied, 'That was so long ago. No one will know that.'"

At the time, Roberts was fresh off her role in The Pelican Brief and at the height of her career. And yet, she was still very much not at all a black woman.

RELATED: Did 'Crazy Rich Asians' Director Jon M. Chu Say Actress Brenda Song Isn't 'Asian Enough'?

3. Howard's concept entered what's known as development hell

In the film industry, films that sit on the shelf for a long time are deemed to be in development hell.

Put simply, when a script is written and subsequently purchased by a studio or production company, it goes through a series of changes that can range from minor changes (such as further development of a minor character) to a complete script overhaul.

The normal process of developing a film from a raw script can take months or even years. However, when it goes over a few years — as Harriet did — it's considered to be in development hell.

4. Whitewashing is a common phenomenon in Hollywood.

As absurd as it sounds on the surface to suggest that a white woman play an African-American woman on the big screen, there is no shortage of examples of whitewashing in film, defined as "a casting practice in the film industry in which white actors are cast in historically non-white character roles or in roles which are scripted for non-white characters."

Here are a few prime examples:

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  • The film 21 was based on a true story involving Asian students at MIT, but the entire cast was white.
  • Emma Stone, clearly a white woman, played an Asian/Hawaiian woman in 2015's Aloha, a romantic comedy "set in the state of Hawaii, which is over 70% nonwhite."
  • Angelina Jolie, clearly another white woman, was cast to play multi-ethnic Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart.
  • 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings featured mainly white actors playing ancient Egyptians and Hebrews.

Notably, when asked to comment on his casting decisions, Exodus: Gods and Kings director Ridley Scott infamously doubled down, saying, "I can't mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I'm just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn't even come up."

Perhaps David Ehrlich of Time Out: New York summed it up best when he wrote, "The ultimate takeaway is that if you can’t finance a $140 million epic about ancient Egypt with racially appropriate actors, maybe you shouldn’t make a $140 million epic about ancient Egypt."

5. It took the success of films like 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther to get Harriet green-lit.

Asked how his film finally made its way out of development hell, Howard explained, “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.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open."

6. Tubman's great-great-great grandniece called the unnamed exec "straight up disrespectful."

Responding to a reporter from TMZ, Tubman's great-great-great grandniece, Tina Wyatt, shared what she thinks would have happened if the film had been made back in 1994 with Roberts in the lead role.

"You would have had a boycott, you know, because our history was important and it is important," she said. "And we know the difference."

She went on to call the studio exec's statement that people wouldn't know the difference "straight up disrespectful."

We couldn't agree more.

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Bernadette Giacomazzo is an editor, writer, and photographer whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, People, Us Weekly, The Source, XXL, HipHopDX, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, BET.com, and more. She is also the author of The Uprising series and is the CEO of the acclaimed G-Force Marketing & Publicity firm, which has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter and has scored film, television, radio, and print placements for celebrity clientele worldwide.