Clarke Peters, who plays Harriet Tubman’s father in a new biopic of the African American abolitionist, has said that a studio executive who pitched Julia Roberts for the lead role should be “tarred and feathered”.
According to Harriet screenwriter Gregory Allen, Julia Roberts was originally the studio’s first choice, despite the role requiring her to play blackface.
Cynthia Erivo – who NME interviewed last week – is currently garnering Oscar buzz for her role as Tubman in Kasi Lemons’ biopic Harriet, which depicts her extraordinary escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes.
Luckily, Roberts was never cast in the role and Peters (The Wire, His Dark Materials) labelled the unnamed studio executive “stupid” for suggesting her.
“Whoever that studio executive was should be tarred and feathered,” he said. “How stupid can you get? If it was up to this guy to decide, we wouldn’t have any stop lights. Something as blatantly obvious as that.”
Peters went on to describe the comments as a “misappropriation” of black people’s culture, and an example that typified US society.
“Such is the world you know, particularly for African Americans,” he said. “The contribution of African Americans to American culture is something that has always been pushed aside and misappropriated.”
Later, the 67-year-old actor discussed criticism of Erivo by those who claimed a British actress shouldn’t have accepted the role of such a celebrated American civil rights hero.
“Probably a British person couldn’t [play Harriet Tubman], but a black British person could, so let’s put that in perspective first of all,” said Peters. “Secondly, she is a first generation Brit and I think if you were looking at Harriet, what you would see is not this homogenous face of black people that you see in America today. You would see the more Afrocentric-looking people who are first generation and I think it was absolutely accurate casting.”
He added: “Let actors act. Let us do our job rather than stereotyping to the point where you have to get an actor from the same nation to play a role. It doesn’t make any sense. Those type of observations, because I can’t even say it’s a critique, are a waste of time.”
Clarke Peters is currently starring in BBC and HBO co-production His Dark Materials, a multi-series adaptation of Philip Pullman’s celebrated fantasy novels. He plays The Master of Jordan College in the show.