Racism in Italy is nothing new. All you need to do is pick up a newspaper or listen to news coverage exploring Italian perspectives onAfrican immigration, black footballersor black politicians (Indeed,Italy’s first black minister, Cecil Kyenge, elected in 2013, has been pelted by bananas and endured calls for rape) . However, Italy is on the map for a different display of racism this go round: the controversy over Italian distributor BIM Distribuzione’s rendition of posters for the film 12 Years a Slave. The critically lauded and commercially successful film from director Steve McQueen is part of the 18th annual Capri Hollywood film festival that began last Friday. The posters first appeared online on a Tumblr called ‘Carefree Black Girls’ according toVariety. The artwork came in two versions: one features a giant profile of Brad Pitt and another with a giant profile of Michael Fassbender, each with a quarter-size image of the film’s star Chiwetel Ejiofor along the bottom. The viral controversy that followed prompted BIM to recall the adverts and apologize for “…unauthorized posters [featuring] Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in a manner inconsistent with approved advertising materials.” When 12 Years actress Lupita Nyong’obowed outof attending the Italian premier (though it seems all cast members were absent), I couldn’t help but think of the abusive relationship her character has with Fassbender’s Master Epps and the cruel treatment of Cecil Kyenge. As a black woman, if I were exploring the brutality of the slave system on film, I would not feel safe or welcome in Italy. This incident is by no means the first time movie artwork has displayed cultural bias, racist and and/or sexist attitudes. In fact, film artwork is often a simple illustration of the prejudice of filmmakers or distributors towards the black experience.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I wasn’t a fan of The Help. The 2011 film attempts to engage the interior struggles of domestic workers in the south during the 1960s. The production stars Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain. The novel "The Help," by southern white author Katheryn Stockett, is a ‘fictional’ account of a sassy young would-be reporter who collaborates with maids in her community to document their experiences as her first foray into a career in journalism. Although Davis initially tried to option the bookand produce it herself, she was unable to do so, but was still compelled to participate in the production (her mother was a domestic worker). Davis carefully crafted her character, Aibileen Clark, with grace and gravitas. She amazingly transforms a film about black women, with no black women behind the scenes, into something stirring, yet buoyant. Let it be known that without Viola Davis, and Spencer I would add, The Help would have been a dud. What’s more, a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Ms. Ablene Cooper, a former domestic servant with whom Stockett was acquainted, alleged that a number of descriptors attributed to the character Aibileen Clark were based on her life. The case, filled in Mississippi, wasdismissed in Augustof 2011simply on the basis that it was filed after a one year statute of limitations; not because the claims were invalid.
Continuing on race and gender dynamics in film artwork like 12 Years a Slave, an artist on a British movie review site reimagined a posterfor The Help. The artist reimagined the text of a poster to reflect the bias of the narrative. The new rendition reads “You’re welcome black people. White people solve racism” and opposed to the original text, “Change begins with a whisper. The Help.” The official poster has Davis and Spencer standing at a bus stop rapt in a secretive conversation while Stone and Howard sit pretty on an adjacent bench. To an extent the composition of the poster reflects the personalities of each character. However, Stone is the only character directing her gaze at the viewer; free, young, white and confident.
Much of the time, people of color in multiracial casts are excised or sidelined in film posters as they “tailor” them for different markets. The marginalization of black characters also happened in posters for the filmCouple’s Retreat starring Vince Vaughn. The 2009 comedy is about four couples on a therapeutic retreat and the only people of color are Kali Hawk and Faison Love. In the U.S. poster they are miniature, embedded behind three white couples, but in the U.K. poster they are absent entirely. I have actually seen the film, and it’s not great. Quality aside, Hawk and Love are an African American couple with a significant age difference that makes it even harder to take them seriously. Hawk’s childishly sexual character, Trudy, calls Love something like “Daddy” throughout the film. Love’s character, Shane, is separated from his wife and has taken up with Trudy. The creation of a lone black couple of differing ages, who are treated as minor comedic instruments, tells you where they stand in the story—the posters both in the U.S. and U.K. just add insult to injury.
Just in August of 2013, the U.S. distributors of the Australian hit film The Sapphires made a PR snafu when they altered their original DVD cover for American audiences. The Sapphires from Aboriginal writer Tony Briggs tells the story four indigenous Australian women, all related, who make the leap from performing familiar country tunes to singing American rhythm and blues during the 1960s. Their repertories and professional goals—which lead them to military bases in Vietnam— take a turn after meeting a well-meaning, hard-drinking Irish musician who becomes their manager. The film isinspired by true events –Brigg’s mother Laurel Robinson and his aunt Lois Peeler were two of the original Sapphires —and provides a lighthearted account of complex politics around Aboriginal identity, the Vietnam War, and racism. Anchor Bay Entertainment, the film’s U.S. distributors, failed to see the uplift in the film and altered theDVD cover for American audiences to feature four black women behind one white man. The Australian DVD cover, like the poster, has the two women prominent and glamorous in the foreground, the white manager smiling behind and two remaining women in the background, both poised and stylish. However, The American poster features the white manager, larger -than-life, in the center foreground and the four women in the background in an opaque blue composition like images imposed on panes of glass. Like BIM Distribuzione and 12 Years a Slave, Anchor Bay Entertainment made anapology for upsettingpotential U.S. fans of the top grossing Australian film of 2012 and said “new cover art is being considered for future replenishment orders.” Whether any changes were made is unclear.
Racial bias is sometimes best understood through slights and subtle biases. When you walk into a restaurant and they take long to seat you, while others are attended to; when you make a large purchase and you’re asked for ID while others do not get the same treatment; or when you walk down a street and people systematically avoid you—these are markers of racism. When you’re the star of possibly the most popular film of 2013, 12 Years a Slave, and you’re reduced to a quarter of the size of supporting white male cast—that is racism. As I wrote is an earlier article called The Butler, Hollywood and Casting, “Fundamentally bottom-line oriented, the [film industry] does not support the production of American narrative features that will not predictably prosper in foreign markets.” In this respect, films featuring a mostly black cast are consideredimpossible to sell oversees. However, films like Red Tails, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave—all independently produced—are softening this hardened ideology. Unfortunately, all the aforementioned films are male centered, so the barriers to supporting films starring black women in overseas markets remains considerable. At this stage it is best to take these moments of resistance to inevitable change in stride, but calling it out is our duty. Hopefully, a time will come where black women and men can share our experiences through the arts and not have salt pressed into the wound.