Gregory Allen Howard has been trying to get Harriet made for quite a while. The screenwriter behind Remember The Titans and Ali said that “the climate in Hollywood … was very different” when he first started to pitch the movie. So different, in fact, that a studio exec thought Julia Roberts could play Harriet Tubman.
“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 in a Q&A published by Focus Features. “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.'”
Allen began working on the movie in 1994, but it took recent huge box office hits to turn the tide on getting Harriet made (with Cynthia Enrivo in the lead).
“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.,’" Allen said. "Then Black Panther really blew the doors open."
Allen also revealed how they found the non-Roberts lead.
“I first saw her when the other producers flew me to New York to see her in The Color Purple,” Allen said. “As soon as she opened her mouth, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s Harriet.’ Afterwards I emailed the other producers, ‘That’s Harriet. She’s a little stick of dynamite.'”