What the unfortunate ’12 Years a Slave’ posters say about Hollywood

<em>This post has been corrected, as indicated below.</em>

An Italian distributor for “12 Years a Slave” recently caused an uproar when a promotional poster for the critically acclaimed film prominently displayed actors Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, the latter of whom plays an abusive slave master. Meanwhile, the film’s star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was dwarfed in both renditions. Although the distributor apologized and pulled the unauthorized materials, this sort of whitewashing isn’t uncommon. (See also: The racist international poster for the 2009 Vince Vaughn comedy “Couples Retreat.”)

In a Hollywood driven by the bottom line, major studios often seek to produce movies with the largest potential for global profitability. That means making flicks that appeal to the broadest possible demographic around the world. That not only limits the type of movies made and the stories told, it also excludes talented actors who aren’t deemed profitable.

“As foreign box-office sales have become more important, the people who manage international distribution have become more influential, weighing in on ‘green-light’ decisions about which films are made,” the Economist explained in a 2011 article about the internationalization of film. “The studios are careful to seed films with actors, locations and, occasionally, languages that are well known in target countries.”


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Since African American actors aren’t as popular abroad, they are often brushed to the side in foreign marketing. The “international marketplace is still fairly racist,” James Ulmer of Ulmer Scale, which ranks actors’ star power, told the New York Times in 2007. Reginald Hudlin, a producer and then entertainment president of BET Networks, agreed: “I always call international the new South. [...] In the old days, they told you black films don’t travel down South. Now they say it’s not going to travel overseas.”

It’s not that all Hollywood films starring African American actors are flops abroad. Just look at the resounding success of “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg. Given this, it’s possible that Hollywood is too narrow-minded on what will work in the international marketplace.

For major movie studios and distributors, the bottom line will always have to come first in order to remain profitable and stay afloat in a perennially competitive industry. But films are more than products. “Movies are not really the same as Coca-Cola,” Sharon Waxman argued in a 1998 Washington Post article. “They reflect ideas and values and offer powerful images of U.S. society.”

As Waxman suggests, filmmaking should be about more than making money. Cinema has the power to change lives -- and the world. Last year was a watershed one for black cinema, with a diverse crop such as “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station” and “The Best Man Holiday,” but in today’s foreign marketplace, that progress will be threatened if black filmmakers don’t receive the same backing as white ones. There’s something to be said about making movies that speak to the world, but sometimes the most powerful thing is to hear your own voice heard on the world’s largest stage. It’s about time the world heard what black filmmakers have to say.

[Updated at 2:20 p.m., January 7: A former version of this post referred to Chiwetel Ejiofor as African American. He’s British.]



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Nico Lang is a contributor at Thought Catalog and co-editor of the “BOYS” anthology series. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang.