Julia Roberts could've played US black civil rights activist Harriet Tubman in a biopic — if an unnamed studio executive had his way.

The bizarre revelation came as a historical drama based on Tubman's life, Harriet, hits US cinemas next month with Cynthia Erivo in the titular role. It has been a long journey for the film's screenwriter and producer, Gregory Allen Howard, who first started working on the project in 1994 — and was instantly met with some big roadblocks.

In a Q&A published this month, explained that "the climate in Hollywood 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 recalled.

Advertisement

Born into slavery in 1822, Tubman escaped and helped approximately 70 others flee slavery using the so-called Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses to the US north and Canada. She later became an activist for the women's suffrage movement before dying in New York in 1913.

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and a Union spy during the American Civil War, circa 1870. Photo / Getty Images
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and a Union spy during the American Civil War, circa 1870. Photo / Getty Images

Howard explained that it was only relatively recently that two important films had lit the path for Harriet to get made.

"When (2014's) 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," he said.

That film became the highest-grossing movie of 2018, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Thankfully, "Julia Roberts IS … Harriet Tubman" was never a sentence we had to hear in a movie trailer — but many on social media are today marvelling at the sheer insanity of the suggestion: