By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 23, 2013 at 5:54PM
In reading world wide web reactions to the Italian release posters for 12 Years A Slave, I immediately remembered this similar occurrence over the summer - except, it didn't happen in Italy, but right here in the good old US of A.
In reading comments on the Italian 12 Years A Slave posters, across the web, I see that many are quick to blast racism and ignorance in Italy, and/or lament the marketing tactics used by the film's Italian distributor, and I thought I'd throw some more ingredients into the frying pan, for you to consider.
First, it may not be widely-known that the international seller and distributor for the film is an American company. Summit Entertainment (via an arrangement with Entertainment One, a Canadian company), is handling the film's international sales and distribution. California-based Summit Entertainment is owned by Lionsgate - as in the same company that releases all of Tyler Perry's movies, and is also home to Codeblack Films, who released titles like Free Angela And All Political Prisoners, The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete and others.
I mention all of that first, so that it's clear to everyone who exactly is responsible for the film's release in Italy, and ultimately, its marketing materials.
And secondly, the similar occurrence I mentioned at the start of this post, which happened right here in our own backyard was, as you can see above and below, marketing materials for American distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment's USA release of the award-winning Australian film The Sapphires.
I think the images speak for themselves: above, the Australian version of the cover is on the right; and the USA version of the cover is on the left (it's in reverse below). You can see why Anchor Bay was criticized for the move - one that was also labeled racist; The difference being, the poster on the left was made for us - American audiences - likely for the very same reasons that the Italian posters for 12 Years A Slave look like they do. In both cases, the motivation (despite the questionable tactics, and our reactions to them) is to sell a product (in this case, films) to a targeted audience.
I suppose the question is, where to draw the proverbial line.
Anchor Bay Entertainment later released a statement saying that it regretted "any unintentional upset" caused by the image, adding that new cover art was "being considered for future replenishment orders."
And by the way, you should know that Anchor Bay Entertainment is co-owned by The Weinstein Company - the same company that released films like Fruitvale Station and The Butler, and more, this year.
I think it's important to know what the relationships between these various film companies are - as in, who's really running each show, at the top of the pyramid. So while it may seem obvious to scream Italian racism (not that it doesn't exist) for something like the 12 Years A Slave images, consider where the responsibility ultimately, truly lies. Often, it can be tracked right back here, within the offices of film studios in our backyard, in these United States - the same companies, by the way, that release films every year, that you pay to see.
The Sapphires is inspired by the real-life story of a 1960s soul singing quartet comprised of 4 Aborigine women (all sisters), branded as Australia’s answer to The Supremes.
It was a box off smash in Australia - the best opening for an Australian movie in almost two years at the time - and was rewarded by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.
So, ultimately, I'm not at all shocked by any of this. It happens even more than is reported. Typically, unless it's a high-profile work, you likely won't see much media coverage.
And it goes even beyond film. I recall learning about a practice within the book publishing world that would essentially "white-wash" covers. Novels with stories about black people are sometimes printed with white, or otherwise ambiguous or ”non-race specific” faces on their covers, or no faces at all, instead favoring words over images, because, as we often hear in the film industry about “black films,” books with faces of black people on them don’t sell as well. Or they'll be immediately tagged "black literature," chasing a significant portion of readers away.
In 2009, I believe it was, on the old S&A site, we wrote about a novel titled Liar by Justine Larbalestier, which tells a story about a black teenage girl, and which was published that year with a cover featuring the face of a girl who looks nothing like the character in the novel, as she’s described. Micah, the teenage girl in the novel, is “black with nappy hair, which she wears natural and short.”
The image used on the cover initially featured a white girl with long blondish/brownish hair.
Some wondered if the publishers were maybe trying to be clever with the cover, since it is a novel about a compulsive liar; essentially, she lies so much that she’s even lying about who she really is. Certainly possible, but, many believed there was something more deliberate at work – the proverbial “white-wash.”
Larbalestier was quick to clue us in to the fact that hers wasn’t (isn't) an isolated incident, explaining that this is an industry practice that’s quite prevalent. One of the more poignant paragraphs in an article she penned at the time, stated:
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?
And maybe even more importantly, with black girls already routinely being bombarded with images of some Eurocentric beauty standard, even if they did pick up the book to read it, how are they to reconcile the image on the cover with the content within the book’s pages?
Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago.
Now replace the words "book" and "books" in both above statements from the author, with the words "film" and "films" where required.
Towards the end of her post, she asked, “perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?”
And to that, I ask the same thing, “perhaps the whole “black films don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?”
Before I go, here's another previous example that I can immediately recall: the international poster for the comedy Couples Retreat, a movie that centered around four couples who settle into a tropical-island resort for a vacation, and, naturally, hilarity and hijinx ensue.
The first poster created for the North American market, showed all 4 couples, including the lone black couple played by Faizon Love and Kali Hawk. Although, they weren't prominently positioned in the poster (distant rear), behind the other 3 couples, positioned in front of them.
However, in the poster created for the international market, they were nowhere to be found - photoshopped out of the image entirely, as you can see on the right.
Naturally, that caused a bit of a stir as well.
As I said before, this kind of thing happens a lot folks (and not just in film), even if they aren't always reported. I'm certainly not suggesting that it's appropriate, but just keep that mind. And also make sure you know who exactly to target your frustrations and annoyances at. The companies ultimately responsible for these decisions (whether abroad or at home) could very well be the same USA-based film studios whose product you spend money on every weekend. So, in the case of 12 Years A Slave, if you're really upset, consider flooding Lionsgate with emails and phone calls, asking them to comment on the film's Italian release posters, rather than taking to Twitter or Facebook and blasting all of Italy for its racist ways, even though you may be considering taking a vacation there next summer.
Here are the 2 DVD covers for The Sapphires, side by side - again, the Australian version of the cover on the left; the USA release version of the cover on the right, with Chris O'Dowd prominently featured, with his name only at the top of it, as if it's a movie all about him, with some indecipherable, unknown women faded into the background.