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Black on Both Sides: Film Distributor Erases "The Sapphires" on American DVD Cover

The Sapphires is a feel-good film about being "black" in a cross-cultural context. I loved it.

Based on the true story of four Aboriginal women who form a singing group and are invited to Vietnam to perform for American troops during the 1960's, the film has been lazily dubbed "the Australian version of Dreamgirls." But it's a lot more than that. So, when I saw the American DVD cover of the film, I cringed a little. It's at left below, compared to the original Australian cover:   

Two dvd covers of the Sapphires movie. One is centered on their white manager, the other foregrounds the four aboriginal stars

That DVD cover advances a narrative that has gone unchallenged for far too long in commercial films: seeing people of color as stock characters, as supplements to the main white character who anchors the story, steers the drama, and determines audience interest. The problem is that actor Chris O' Dowd's fictionalized and wildly funny character (manager David Lovelace) doesn't anchor the story here. We are so used to this narrative—we've grown up with it, we've been lured into theaters by it—that The Sapphires distributor capitalized on it, even at the expense of false advertising. Some critics have called this strategic image placement smart, especially when considering the popularity of Chris O' Dowd in the US.  This is understandable.

But there comes a time when "smart" marketing taints the nuance of the product that it seeks to promote. This cover underscores a long history of erasing aboriginal cultures that the Australian government perpetuated from the early 1900's up until 1970: during these stolen generations, the government forced the removal of Aboriginal children from their families in order to wipe out their culture. Sapphires group member Kay McCray (played by Shari Sebbens) faces this painful legacy in the film and struggles to accept her mixed identity, most strikingly in a scene where she "passes" in a group of white Australian women and later finds comfort in the arms of a black American soldier in Vietnam. Although not part of the tourist image of Australia, director Wayne Blair doesn't shy away from this longstanding human rights issue.

In some of the most resonant scenes, the singers find themselves in war-torn Vietnam among several black soldiers who, in many ways, suffer the same type of second-class citizenship and racism that the women do in Australia. Both groups find themselves promoting a cause of freedom that they don't fully understand or believe since they don't benefit from its rewards in their respective countries.

It's not every day that we see films like this, where "blackness" is seen outside of a solely African-American/African context and where it becomes a shared awareness between two marginalized groups of people. That's precisely what made this film refreshing to me: that awareness, that alliance, that acceptance of a shared place. No one owns blackness here. And in the midst of this deeply rich context comes soulful vocals, sequined dresses, a powerful performance by award-winning Aboriginal actress Deborah Mailman and, yes, an especially humorous turn by Chris O' Dowd as the group's manager.

The original members of The Sapphires have protested the American DVD cover and, in the spirit of the film's allied message, called on the NAACP to step in. The protest ignited  widespread support across the country and international film community—this week their efforts caused DVD distributor Anchor Bay Films to apologize and promise to change the cover.

But, what does it mean when stories about non-white people have to be whitened in order to be sold in varying markets? What does it mean when distributors can't rely on the power and interest of non-white stories in order to market them? What happened here is not a rare case. Distributors have voiced similar concerns about marketing "black films" in overseas markets, expressing fears that they don't sell or attract the "audience." Or, maybe they do, but in the presence of a dominant narrative that assigns importance based on "stars," and whiteness, it may be difficult to determine.

Read more of Nijla Mu'min's columns on film for Bitch


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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

"the government forced the

"the government forced the removal of Aboriginal children from their families in order to wipe out their culture" - Not saying it wasn't a bad choice (or that it wasn't based on racism), but I'm pretty sure the reason for the removals was still to protect the children - no matter what the effects were. It's important to be correct when stating facts like that.

Are you serious?

I feel like you are probably genuine with this, that you are perhaps one of those people who assume that nothing is done maliciously. In response to that, I am going to suggest in all politeness that you educate yourself before you talk about things you obviously have no knowledge of.

In the U.S., Native kids were taken and placed in schools for the explicit purpose of destroying Native culture. In Australia, kids were literally stolen in the hopes that they could be assimilated into white culture and Christianity. When you want to destroy a culture, you take its children. That's colonizing 101.

The motive was assimilation.

This was not a secret. The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997) says in Chapter 2:

"In 1937 the first Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference was held ... The conference was sufficiently impressed by Neville's idea of `absorption' to agree that,

... this conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.

...

New South Wales was the first jurisdiction to reshape its Indigenous child welfare system according to the assimilationist welfare model. After 1940 the removal of Indigenous children was governed by the general child welfare law, although once removed Indigenous children were treated differently from non-Indigenous children.

...

State government child welfare practice was marked more by continuity than change. The same welfare staff and the same police who had previously removed children from their families simply because they were Aboriginal now utilised the neglect procedures to remove just as many Aboriginal children from their families."

(http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-chapter-2)

Ask yourself why you were that sure about this.

Yikes.

Because brown people can't raise their kids as well as white people can.

You admit that it was a bad choice and that it was based on racism, yet you use good intentions as a way to cast a brighter sheen on an ordeal with tragic long-term consequences that have lasted to the present day. So tragic that 'good reasons' shouldn't even be a consideration for correctness. To put it plainly, who cares.

"Not saying it wasn't a bad choice (or that it wasn't based on racism), but I'm pretty sure the reason for the removals of the Jewish and Romani people was to protect the Aryans-no matter what the effects were. It's important to be correct when stating facts like that."

You're a little fucked in the head.

There is the marketing angle

"In the presence of a dominant narrative that assigns importance based on “stars,” and whiteness ...."

While I agree with all that is posited here ... one has to keep in mind that marketing (ALL marketing) discriminates and targets for better returns. This is a hard movie to based one's points given that the nonwhite actors are unknown here and in Europe.

Star quality and whiteness are not so easily equated anymore, which begs the question: What's the goal of this protest? Principle over profit? Pride over prejudice? When selling and adapting a narrative onto film - there is always some loss (of truth, control, depiction). Is the point that more people see the film or that fewer people see the film? Note the new marketing links this film with films and actors the audience here might actually recognize. Welcome to the world of marketing. One may think one can make or market a film without some price paid to the Devil, but I'm here to tell you that the Devil always gets his due.

It would be a different question if the narrative had been colonized by nonwhites (see "the Help"), but judging this DVD cover (like album and book covers) without acknowledging its purpose (the eye of the consumer) is to deny forces other than racism at work. Quite frankly the American DVD cover LOOKS better and more professional than the original. And in the original Mr. O'Dowd's presence overshadows two of the four Sapphires (he looks cut and pasted in - like old school scissors and Elmer's "cut and paste").

Chris O'Dowd may not be the main character of the film; nonetheless, he is the most bankable and noteworthy star in the film. He is hot at this moment. It is the way Hollywood and marketing work. Is it racist? - Sure but then again marketing is not art and exists only to sell product. It has no soul, morals, or conscience. Will more people see the film if they recognize an actor in it - yes, of course.

I can't wait to see this film. And I heard about it from a magazine article discussing Chris O'Dowd's films.

The argument that media (and

The argument that media (and the marketing of that media) is about supply-and-demand and that these production companies are just giving audiences what they want is tired. There are plenty of movies that feature unknown actors that use that as a draw in and of itself. In addition to being creatively lazy, and reinforcing racism all over the world, people are telling you that these strategies are hurting them. People of color are saying that this particular choice in this particular context is causing damage. And you're arguing with them, telling them you know better, and basically invalidating their comments by saying, "But...capitalism." Seems like you're missing the point.

The ends do not justify the means

The ends do not justify the means = marginalizing WOC on the cover of a movie ABOUT them is not okay just to get a wider audience. I saw a preview for this in the theaters and missed it since it had a nearly non existent run in the U.S., and if I saw this DVD cover at the store I would walk right by because I would never have expected such an absurd manipulation (also, I'm not familiar with what Chris O'Dowd is famous for right now so he's not a selling point for me).

False advertising/mis-aimed marketing can also have its downfalls. The ads for Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in "Admission" made it look like a light hearted romp you would expect from two comedic actors, and it probably drew in a few bucks from unsuspecting people that way, but when I saw the movie in theaters half the audience walked out when it turned out to be a much more serious film (I loved it, but that was in spite of it being not at all what I was expecting, and if I'd been having a rough day I might have walked out too). Why trick an audience into trying something new? The unhappy people who wouldn't have gone looking for it are likely to be much more vocal about how awful they thought it was (because they were misinformed), than the people who genuinely liked it or liked it in spite of being misinformed.

Unfortunate cover. But I

Unfortunate cover. But I think it has more to do with the fact that Chris O'Dowd is the only "star" in that movie. If, say, Beyonce had starred in it, she would have been prominently displayed.