Harriet director responds to Julia Roberts casting controversy

Harriet producer Debra Martin Chase wasn't surprised by the news because "that's how it used to be".

Harriet director Kasi Lemmons believes "things have changed" since a studio executive suggested Julia Roberts play African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman in a biopic.

Gregory Allen Howard, who co-wrote the Harriet screenplay with Lemmons, hit headlines last month when he revealed that an unnamed studio head suggested the Pretty Woman actress portray the activist during a meeting in 1994.

Many social media users expressed outrage about the controversial suggestion, and during an interview with Variety, the director took an optimistic stance on the news, saying the response proves how much times have changed.

"It was a long time ago and things have changed. (The uproar) does go to show you how far we've come," Lemmons said. "I think it has happened a lot. In fact, it's happened a lot and not that long ago. We do have to be careful and check ourselves ... (But) we've learned a lot since then. And in fact, in some ways, the way of approaching docu-drama is completely different than it was 25 years ago."

Producer Debra Martin Chase said she'd heard the story long ago but had forgotten about it by the time it resurfaced.

"I wasn't surprised. That's how it used to be. People would say crazy stuff like that and get away with it. They would not be ashamed to say whatever they thought. That was the climate in this town - hostile," she commented.

Roberts and Cynthia Erivo, who plays Tubman in the biopic, have yet to comment on the story, but actress Viola Davis recently weighed on the issue, calling it "ridiculous".

In his original interview with Focus Features, Howard recalled, "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.'"

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