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Meet the Real Star of '12 Years a Slave': Brad Pitt's Floating Head

by Sam Adams
December 26, 2013 12:44 PM
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The initial discussion over whether producer Brad Pitt's brief appearance in 12 Years a Slave was a distraction has died down since the film's premiere. But it's been kicked up again by the posters for the film's Italian release, which focus on the film's white supporting actors and reduce Chiwetel Ejiofor's protagonist to a visual footnote. Pitt, of course, is a global star, and Michael Fassbender has those X-Men movies on his resume, so it's possible to explain Italian distributor BIM's actions as simple market-whoring; chances are as much effort went into choosing the images as into the cack-handed Photoshop job. But the embedded racism is hard to ignore, not to mention the fact that the images make it look like Ejiofor is running away from Pitt's giant head. 

Casting stars can be a tricky business. Part of the reason Pitt is involved in 12 Years as an actor as well as a producer is because his name, and his face, mean something in international markets. But at Toronto, where 12 Years a Slave premiered, Pitt was judicious and when and where he spoke for the film, showing up at the premiere to draw flashbulbs but bowing out of subsequent press so as not to steal the spotlight. Putting his mug front and center blows that delicate balance to hell.

According to Variety, Lionsgate, whose Summit arm handles 12 Years' European sales, is working to have the posters recalled, but for now they live on as examples of how racism and lowest-common-denominator capitalism can work hand in hand.

Update: Peter Sarram, who teaches at John Cabot University in Rome, left a comment below saying that far from being apologetic, BIM's Marcello De Bellis joked on Facebook that if it were up to him he would have "simply titled the film Slave with a BDSM black patent leather clad woman in high heels whipping the main character on the poster." (Sarram provided the below screenshot of the thread, as well as the translation.) According to this article, also in Italian, BIM has apologized and will be using images similar to the U.S. campaign, which placed Ejiofor at its center.


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  • Thomas Earlham | December 26, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    Yeah, I am very reluctant to call this racism, because film distributors do this exact same thing all the time -- that is, give disproportionate visibility to their major stars who happen to play minor characters -- whether or not there are non-white actors in the equation or whether the film's story has to do with race. In other words, they'd have done the same thing if the lead in the film were played by Sally Hawkins, and Julia Roberts had a cameo, and the film were called "12 Years a Librarian."

  • Sam Adams | December 27, 2013 9:09 PM

    I'm pretty much okay with that.

  • THomas Earlham | December 26, 2013 1:53 PM

    All true.

    As long as we're okay with saying to distributors (or business people of any kind): "You know that crass and somewhat deceptive thing you do as a matter of course in order to maximize your profit? We're okay with it to a point, but when there are non-whites involved you really oughta handle those films with more delicate gloves."

  • Sam Adams | December 26, 2013 1:24 PM

    I haven't seen evidence of racist intent (although the marketing guy above is at least grossly insensitive). But I do think the effect is racist even if the intent was not.

  • snoopy | December 26, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    The fact is, more attention is accorded in the second half of the movie to Fassbender's strange sexual predilections than to Northrop's slavery ordeal. Added to that is Pitt's cameo as the saintly white man who extends his hand in charity to the poor black, and you have two Italian posters that tell an uncomfortable truth about the film.

  • snoopy | January 1, 2014 10:52 PM

    lol, no, that's hollywood's.

  • Donella | December 30, 2013 9:16 PM

    "strange sexual predilections"

    Is this your way of saying rapist?

  • Peter Sarram | December 25, 2013 9:38 AMReply

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, I have the promo person for BIM, the Italian distributor of "12 Years a Slave" as a 'friend of a friend' contact on Facebook and in commenting the story --which was picked up as little more than an amusing tidbit by Italian media-- said that it was obvious that it was a marketing thing and that if it was up to him he would have "simply titled the film 'Slave' with a BDSM black patent leather clad woman in high heels whipping the main character on the poster" (which not only shows a racism marked by complete obliviousness to the question of race but also the usual crass sexism that characterises Italian media gatekeepers). The comments on the FB thread were even more to the point. One chummy fellow wrote that it's obviously a marketing decision as "if the film had any other 'negro' like Will Smith or Denzel Washington they would have featured prominently on the poster. Please note that 'negro' is a term that while it might not have the same hateful history and connotation that the n-word has in English it is nonetheless a despicable and insulting term that most people conscious of race questions avoid and is distinctly different -in Italian- from 'nero'). So, again, the racism might not be direct but is very much the dominating sentiment as it simply reflects the (again) complete obliviousness and insensitivity of Italian media to issues of race. After all in a country where black face (and 'yellow face') and other hateful forms of racial stereotyping dominate variety shows and comedy routines with nary a peek from most anyone what would one expect and what would one call it?
    To say nothing of course of the consumer fraud of advertising a film as starring Brad Pitt when he appears for 10 minutes barely. Wonder what Mr. Pitt, who is one of the producers of the film, thinks about this.
    Apologies for the rant but this is so perfect and so central to making Italian TV and film develop an ethical and political stance in relation to questions of race and representation that I got carried away.

  • slice | December 24, 2013 9:50 PMReply

    Yeah, but let's be real---that's still racist because even though Pitt is a big star, he's barely in the film long enough to warrant dominating the poster---about 10 min. tops.

  • Donella | December 30, 2013 9:17 PM

    It is both racist and supremacist.

  • Isaac | December 24, 2013 10:12 PM

    It may be tasteless, but it's not racist. It's marketing. Pitt and Fassbender will sell more tickets than Ejiofor.

  • Walter | December 24, 2013 6:49 PMReply

    It's not racist to realize that you can't market a movie based on American slavery as easily in Italy as you can here. So, you put one of the most famous actors in the world in the poster of your movie who also happens to be in your movie...

  • Bob | February 20, 2014 2:12 AM

    Wow, finally. What you say seems to be extremely obvious and possibly the only rational reasoning behind their action but people are so excited to claim racism at every turn they completely abandon their wonderful logical minds so that they may demonize the actions of others. They wish to take the morale high ground and have a false sense of superiority. Glad to see not everyone has abandoned their sense. Kudos to you

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