In 1994, the world was different. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the Spice Girls were all just a twinkle in a music manager's eye. Michael Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in one of the most confusing celebrity pairings of the decade. Friends had just hit the air, and women across the United States hadn't yet subjected themselves to "the Rachel." Hillary Clinton was the First Lady, not the ghost haunting us with thoughts of running for President yet again. We didn't have cell phones, social media, or even Tamagotchi.
The world was, apparently, so different that Julia Roberts might have played Harriet Tubman. Back in 1994, screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard began developing and shopping a biopic based on Harriet Tubman's life, and Julia Roberts was suggested for the lead role. Yes, that Julia Roberts, the whole milk-skinned star of Mystic Pizza. Per Entertainment Weekly, Howard shared that anecdote in both a Q&A earlier this month and an LA Times essay published this week.
"The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, 'This script is fantastic. Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.' 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,'" Howard said in his Q&A with Focus Features. But no matter how different the cultural climate was in 1994, Julia Roberts was still very, very white, and Harriet Tubman had always been Black.
Looking at it now, the idea of this casting is so absurd that it could very well be a joke. (At least, maybe that's what we want to believe, through the slightly clearer lens of 2019.) As Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh wrote on Twitter, "Even Hollywood execs aren't this stupid. 'Get Julia Roberts' was a running joke in The Player (1992) about the industry's limited vision." In The Player, a black comedy about a Hollywood film executive, Julia Roberts is repeatedly suggested for the leading female role in every pitch meeting.
But then again, this is Hollywood, and Hollywood has a bad track record of similar whitewashing. Mickey Rooney played the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), a tan Angelina Jolie played the Dutch and Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart (2007), a similarly bronzed Jake Gyllenhaal played a Middle Eastern prince in Prince of Persia (2010), Joel Edgerton played the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), a dark-haired Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell (2017), and so on.
According to Howard, the recent success of 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther allowed for Harriet to be made now, and the Tubman biopic of Howard's dreams finally came to life this year with the far more appropriate casting of Cynthia Erivo in the lead role. "When you do historical films, you have to stay true to the spirit of the story," Howard said. But who knows? Maybe Scarlett Johansson was busy the day of that casting.