What’s So Wrong With Julia Roberts Playing Harriet Tubman?

A few days ago, the screenwriter of the film ‘Harriet’, Gregory Allen Howard, was quoted saying that one Hollywood exec had tried to pass off Julia Roberts for the role of Harriet Tubman, a former slave turned abolitionist in 1994. The internet community was furious on hearing this. Keep reading to find out why.

What is the film ‘Harriet’ all about?

The film’s script was written in 1994 but it only managed to see the light of day last year. Despite the fact that it is a highly historical biopic of a brave woman who managed to defy all odds and fight for a cause she believed in. It is a film that centers around and documents the real-life story of former slave and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Tubman single-handedly managed to free over 100 slaves from captivity and slavery. The film follows Tubman’s journey in gaining freedom not only for her but for hundreds of others using the Underground Railroad. Initially titled “Freedom Fire” , “Harriet” stars Janelle Monae and Cynthia Erivo who plays Harriet Tubman. Since its release to theaters, it has garnered favorable reviews and criticisms in equal measure. According to Screen Rant, the film has won several awards such as Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars.

So why can’t Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman?

As mentioned above, “Harriet” focuses on the character of Harriet Tubman. Tubman is a prominent black female from the slavery era in America. Julia Roberts is unfit to play Tubman because of the difference in cultural heritage. Julia Roberts has roots that trace back to northern Europe and bidding her off to play a dark-skinned historical figure is not only insulting to the black historical heritage but also to the cause that Harriet Tubman herself fought so hard for.

Not to mention Roberts is also blonde and her appearance and skin color would require a huge amount of bronzer and even then she would still not look anywhere close to Tubman herself. Is it to say that the executive expected Roberts to wear blackface? This would have been prejudicial and severely racist. Howard states that when he pitched the idea to the executives at the unnamed studio, they wanted Roberts to play it, but a black female in the room was quick to point out Harriet Tubman’s race. The executives simply brushed it off by saying that it was a long time ago so no one would ever notice the difference.

The only fault to this though is that Harriet Tubman is a very prominent figure in the African American history and many Americans learn about her from an early age. Therefore it would be inaccurate to say that no one would ever notice that Julia Roberts doesn’t share the same descent as Tubman. Casting Julia Roberts for a black role is the perfect example of what double standards are. Recently, when news that Halle Bailey, the African-American singer was cast to play the role of Ariel in the remake of the Little Mermaid, angry or somewhat racist fans were quick to point out that Ariel was actually white.

Roles that are perceived to be white are supposedly not supposed to be given to Afro-American actors while the same casting crews have no issue in getting obviously white actors to play roles that are not of white descent. Case in point is Angelina Jolie who had her skin darkened and had to wear curls on her hair to portray an Afro-Cuban woman. Wouldn’t it have just been easier to get a female actor who was from that heritage? Allen Howard says that he had to wait for Hollywood to undergo a metamorphosis of sorts for his movie to get to theaters even if it took 25 years for that to happen. Recently, films such as 12 years a slave and campaigns like the #Oscarssowhite where African American actors boycotted the Oscars have been able to push for greater if not equal representation.

The concept of whitewashing in Hollywood

According to Wikipedia, whitewashing refers to a casting practice where white actors are cast in roles scripted for non-white characters or in historically non-white roles. In the century that the film industry has been active, Hollywood is still grappling with its handling of the issue of race in casting. Judging from most movies created, no race is immune to whitewashing. However, Asians and African Americans seem to be most affected by this practice as roles that were obviously not white were assigned to white actors. Producers and directors in the past didn’t seem to think that black movies were at all profitable and could try to “clean” off as much of it as they could. However, in recent years, blockbusters such as the Black Panther proved that African American movies and actors have as much potential as their white counterparts and the very standard definition of white being acceptable was starting to get written off.

About Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts is an American actress and film producer who got her name on the charts when she portrayed the lead role in the film Pretty woman in 1990. She has since then appeared in many films and shows. She has been nominated for various awards for her acting and has won 3 Golden Globes Awards and is also a mother to 3 children.

Final thoughts

Whitewashing has been around for a long time and there’s no sight to it ending soon. However, it is imperative that Hollywood and generally the film industry not water down historical figures because of myths on social acceptability. The story of the civil rights icon Harriet Tubman is one that details a search for freedom, bravery and the emergence of a black woman in raising her voice against suffrage and servitude. Casting Julia Roberts is a slap to historical icons and their struggle and it is outright offensive. It would have opened up a gateway for any executive and director who want to alter historical figures in order to sell their movie.

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