Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman? Yes, Welcome to Hollywood | Opinion

Julia Roberts, star of Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich and...Harriet? That's right—a studio head wanted Roberts to play Harriet Tubman, the iconic black abolitionist and most famous freedom fighter of the Underground Railroad. According to the new film's producer and screenwriter, the horrific suggestion came during a 1994 meeting.

I can't believe it. Wait, yes I can. It wasn't the first, nor the last, time Hollywood has sought to deny women of color the opportunity to play themselves. And while I wasn't even shocked to learn that after someone pointed out that Tubman was black, the studio president replied, "That was so long ago, no one will know that," I am still outraged.

Hollywood has a long history of whitewashing women of color. Chinese American star Anna May Wong desperately wanted to play O-lan, a rare dramatic Chinese female lead, in The Good Earth (1937). Unfortunately, the studios had already cast a white actor to play O-lan's Chinese husband and would not violate the production code that prohibited depictions of romantic relationships between actors of different races. So they cast German-born Luise Rainer as the lead and offered Wong the role of a villainous concubine. Wong rejected the offer, exclaiming: "You're asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in a picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." Rainer went on to win a best actress Oscar for portraying a Chinese woman, an opportunity that Wong never had.

Similarly, Lena Horne was considered for, but ultimately denied, the lead in Show Boat (1951). She would have played Julie, a mixed-race woman in a forbidden interracial marriage with a white man. The studios deemed it too controversial, in the age of anti-miscegenation laws, to cast a real black woman in the role. Instead, they gave the role to white actress Ava Gardner.

In another example, most of the Puerto Rican characters in West Side Story (1961) were played by white actors in brownface makeup, including Natalie Wood's Maria. The Puerto Rican actors also wore skin-darkening makeup, recalled Rita Moreno, who played Anita, in an interview with Maria Hinojosa for the podcast In the Thick. Moreno remains one of the few women of color to win a best supporting actress Oscar.

The newest cinematic version of West Side Story (2020), directed by Steven Spielberg, has Latinx actors playing all of the Puerto Rican roles. Yet a University of Southern California study found that Latinx are egregiously underrepresented in films—especially Latinas. Out of the top 100 films of 2018, 70 films were missing Latina characters.

Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts attends the 10th Annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic Los Angeles on October 5 in Pacific Palisades, California. Frazer Harrison/Getty

Whitewashing has continued well into the 21st century. Angelina Jolie darkened her skin and curled her hair to play a mixed-race woman in A Mighty Heart (2007); Emma Stone played a woman with Asian and Hawaiian heritage in Aloha (2015); Rooney Mara portrayed a Native American woman in Pan (2015); and Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman in Ghost in the Shell (2017). Director Rupert Sanders defended casting Johansson in an interview with CNET. "She's the best actress of my generation and her generation," he said, "and the person I felt most embodied the physicality and the ability to inhabit that role."

This common "best actress" rationale dismisses the fact that women of color do not have equal opportunities to showcase their talent. Actor Gabrielle Union made the point in an interview with USA Today. "So when you're saying, 'We just went with the best person,' that's all good and well if every person was considered," she said. "But every person isn't considered, so this idea of the best person is sort of a random, made-up thing to make up for a lack of inclusion."

Tubman's own words illustrate the barriers women of color still face in Hollywood, as quoted by Viola Davis in her historic 2015 Emmy acceptance speech:

"In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can't seem to get there nohow. I can't seem to get over that line."

Women of color are still waiting to play more complex dramatic leads, to be considered the "best actress of her generation" and to receive equal pay. Progress may be infuriatingly slow, but it's there. The role of Tubman ultimately went to Cynthia Erivo, a black British actor, not Roberts. To quote Davis, "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity."

Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and pop culture expert. She is the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.