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November 20, 2019

Runaway bride? Yes. Runaway slave? No.

In an essay published Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard recounts a meeting that took place in 1994, several months after he was commissioned to write a screenplay about Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist who used the Underground Railroad to rescue other slaves. Howard had just finished the first draft of Freedom Fire (which would ultimately become Harriet), and the then-president of a studio sub-label said it was "great." Instead of stopping there, the studio chief added, "Let's get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman."

The president was reminded that Tubman was black, Howard said, and he (or she) responded: "That was so long ago. No one will know that." The script wasn't picked up by the producers who commissioned it, and Howard said it was rejected by all of the people he went on to pitch. It wasn't until 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013 that he knew Hollywood was ready for Harriet. "Hollywood has a herd mentality," he wrote. "There was no herd around the story of a former slave girl who freed other slaves."

The fact he found a producer and Harriet was released this fall shows the push for diversity in Hollywood is working, and the "important thing is there was no longer hostility to the idea," he said. Howard, who has been a screenwriter for decades, said he's "enjoying the warmth of the Hollywood climate change, and the diverse stories that are bathing in that sunlight, happy that Harriet's other journey is now finally complete." Catherine Garcia

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