Whitewashing... 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.

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.