Chris O’Dowd recast as The Sapphires star

Whitewashed... the new US DVD cover.

Whitewashed... the new US DVD cover.

You know the film The Sapphires? Sure you do. Even if you haven’t seen the 2012 film, it’s likely that you’ve heard of it, or at least seen the poster – since it was the highest grossing Australian movie on its opening weekend.  Dubbed the ‘Aussie version of Dreamgirls’ in Cannes, it tells the story of four indigenous women discovered by a talent scout who travelled to Vietnam to sing for the US troops.

But fans of the movie might be confused by the US and Canadian versions of its DVD cover. See, instead of lead actresses Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell, you’ll find Irishman Chris O’Dowd as the standout star. The Dreamgirls – all four women in the lead cast – are rendered into a blur in the background, looking more like back-up singers for a glitzy, male rising star.

Of course, those who have watched and loved the film will note that O’Dowd, lovable though he is, actually played the relatively minor role of the group’s manager. The bizarre choice by North American DVD distributor Anchor Bay to recast O’Dowd as the face of the film has therefore sparked an onslaught of social media wrath.

The original film poster.

The original film poster.

Americanising promotional posters isn’t uncommon. In fact, distribution companies usually pitch blockbusters with the local audience’s taste in mind, pushing key stars that are likely to sell the films or TV shows. But what’s outrageous about the Saphhiresgate is that it has not only (quite literally) pushed the women out of the spotlight, but in doing so – also whitewashed the film by featuring a better known white male star.

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Australian director, screenwriter and playwright Briony Kidd highlighted the problematic approach on her blog, “If there’s a ‘name’ involved who’ll pique people’s interest, why wouldn’t you emphasise that? But there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed ... there are also political and cultural sensitivities to be considered.”

In this case, the irony is made even more painfully acute as the film is based on a true story – at a time where indigenous voices, particularly that of women’s, were stifled by significant social and political injustices.

Twitter response from Chris O'Dowd.

Twitter response from Chris O'Dowd.

As Kidd noted: “Given that the film itself touches on issues of racism in Vietnam War-era Australia, when it was hard for young women like these to gain the recognition their talents warranted, it’s egregious.”

It’s a view shared by indigenous rights activist Celeste Liddle: "It says an awful lot about how society views Indigenous women and the space we occupy. We are not even allowed to be the stars of our own true stories. Why is it that a story about four strong Aboriginal women is not marketable unless it has a white male to sell it?"

 

The assumption that only films with white, ‘bankable’ stars will do well in the box office is a worrying one. (Remember the Couples Retreat debacle where the only black couple was removed in the UK version of the poster?) And we should rightly feel insulted as filmgoers – since marketers are basically conveying the message that the average punters will only stand behind stories that are beige and whitewashed, unable to appreciate anything that touches on the nuances of race – or god forbid – the inner lives of women.

 

A change.org petition has since been launched to ask Anchor Bay to change the misleading cover. So far 250 signatures have been collected. If it’s any consolation, Chris O’Dowd has responded to criticisms on Twitter and admitted that the US DVD cover is “misleading” “ill-judged, insensitive and everything that the film wasn’t.”  

Here’s to pointing out the white elephant in the room.

 

8 comments

  • This certainly does seem like a "whitewash", especially since O'Dowd's character is relatively minor. The four gorgeous female leads, each playing four equally talented characters, have done a lot to challenge and dispell negative stereotypes. I think it is shameful that the overseas distributor has felt the need to literally push them into the background. It's even more shameful to think that the distributor thought it was necessary in order to make the film "palatable" to overseas audiences.

    Commenter
    Me
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 02, 2013, 5:17PM
    • Its a disgrace but that's what I expect from the Nth Americans

      Commenter
      SG
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      August 02, 2013, 5:33PM
      • I loved this movie, and all four fabulous female leads, and I hope they get the credit they deserve in the US.

        Another difference I noticed between the two covers is that in the US version, the four women are being shown in MUCH more sexual poses than the original release cover. So they're being whitewashed and sexualised much more highly than the orignal cover. Very interesting, given that I took a much different message away from the movie - that their human warmth and support of each other was much more important than their showgirl personas.

        Commenter
        Her
        Date and time
        August 02, 2013, 5:58PM
        • And the US likes to say that Australia is racist......

          Commenter
          lola
          Date and time
          August 02, 2013, 6:00PM
          • Surely by changing the promotional poster to focus on Chris O'Dowd is misleading. Leading to those who pay to view the movie not receiving what they expected. It would also miss the audience that would see it if it were appropriately promoted.

            Such a shame that in this day and age black women are not considered valuable enough to sell a film.

            I personally loved the film and was inspired by the fact that these aboriginal women in the 1960's were able to gain this level of popularity. It was a story I had never heard before and wondered why not. By focusing on Chris O'Dowd the achievements of these women is once again overlooked.

            Commenter
            Lynda
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            August 02, 2013, 6:57PM
            • Good article , good reraction from Chris O'Dowd . But what do you honestly expect from American distributors ? They probably think they're being brave releasing an Australian film at all. And they might be right Plenty of visiting Aussies have been asked what language we speak ; i was asked if Australia is near Turkey. They have some super-smart people over there , but there's a big bunch of very insular ones , unaware and unconcerned about the rest of the world.Not to excuse the insult to The Sapphires , i guess as he is better known in the U.S than the female stars the marketers though he is more likely to bring in the punters and their $$$ ; which is what it's all about to those people.

              Commenter
              daniel
              Location
              rural nsw
              Date and time
              August 02, 2013, 7:01PM
              • Not only that, but I don't see Deborah Mailman in the photos at all. She has had her face replaced with a different actor. Is Chris O'Dowd that big a star in the US that they had to recreate a whole new image to sell the DVD?

                Commenter
                Bazwat
                Date and time
                August 02, 2013, 7:27PM
                • The reality is that they are trying to sell the movie to an audience who don't know the other actors. It's a great movie but if the American public don't buy the movie they'll never find out.

                  Commenter
                  josephine
                  Date and time
                  August 02, 2013, 7:30PM
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