Whitewashing The Sapphires

I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen The Sapphires, 2012’s feelgood Australian movie about a quartet of Aboriginal singers in the ’60s.  I was quite broke when it came out — or, more accurately, I was squirrelling every spare dollar I had into my savings, what with going to North America in November — and I’m just really slack about seeing movies that aren’t taking up 80% of my Tumblr dash at any one time.  (And one day we will talk about the fact that the supposedly media-savvy and sophisticated base that is Tumblr fandom lap up every blockbuster that can afford to promote itself at Comic-Con.)

This is what the Australian advertising material and DVD cover looks like:

A full colour photo depicting four Aboriginal women, with a white dude in the background.
The Sapphires – Australian edition

This is not, in my opinion, an especially great poster.  It’s crowded and the framing is awkward, probably because it’s arranged to put Jessica Mauboy (an Australian Idol finalist and successful pop singer) in the most prominent position.  It also looks like several pictures have been photoshopped together, although maybe that’s just because Deborah Mailman, on the far right, has the steely-eyed look of a superheroine going undercover in a girl-group, and any minute now she’s going to rip off her sequinned dress and reveal her true identity.  Man, I would watch that movie so hard.

Nevertheless, we have the four women of colour after whom the film is named, and the sole white man lurking in the background.  Notice that his tie is crooked and his facial expression is gormless.  Or maybe that’s just the effect of the dead mouse on his lip.

This is the North American DVD cover:

In the foreground, a dynamic looking white guy. In the background, coloured blue, four Aboriginal women.
The North American version.

So this is kind of awkward, right?  Suddenly Chris O’Dowd, White Guy, is in the foreground, looking incredibly dapper and dynamic.  He’s captured mid-dance, tie straight, chin covered in fashionable contemporary stubble, as opposed to the schlubby stubble of the first picture.  The four lead actresses are relegated to blue-shaded panels in the background.  How blue?  You can no longer tell that Shari Sebbens, the member of the quartet with the lightest skin, is a woman of colour at all.

Suddenly, The Sapphires looks like a movie about a white man and his four … possessions?  Objects?  Tickets to personal fame and glory?  Who can say?  With the addition of designer stubble, only the height of Miranda Tapsell’s hair (far right) let’s us know this film doesn’t have a contemporary setting.  (And O’Dowd’s jacket, I suppose, but I saw a guy wearing a jacket like that just last week.)

The especially annoying bit is that, purely in terms of design, this is a much better poster than the Australian version.  The composition overall is better and clearer — just, you know, kind of racist and sexist.

Finally, here’s the North American soundtrack art:

The four women and Chris O'Dowd are dancing. O'Dowd is still in the centre, looking unreasonably cool.
The North American soundtrack cover.

This, I think, is a lot better than the DVD art — we still have Chris O’Dowd looking stubbly and cool in the very centre of things (it may in fact be the exact same picture in both versions, just photoshopped into a different colour — it’s hard to tell without a high-res version), but at least Mailman, Mauboy, Sebbens and Tapsell are actually present and not Smurf-coloured.

(I just realised that the blue panels on the DVD cover are taken straight from this picture, so yes, it’s probably the same picture of O’Dowd as well.  Interesting that this artwork wasn’t used for that.)

It’s curious to note that one universal factor across all this artwork is that Shari Sebbens is in the background.  She’s on the far left in the Australian version and second from the right in the North American DVD, but either way, she’s relegated to the back row.  This is particularly odd in Australia, where Sebbens is a rising star.

Is she in the background because light-skinned Aboriginal people are less “authentic”?  (There was a lawsuit about this a couple of years ago.  It was amazing, and I totally recommend Justice Bromberg’s judgment.  Seriously, it’s not just interesting, it’s a surprisingly good read!)  On the other hand, is Sebbens’ growing fame because she’s light-skinned and has European features?  Race and the politics thereof is hugely complicated in Australia.  (And I do realise that I’ve accused the US artwork of simultaneously whitewashing and possibly backgrounding a light-skinned woman.  IT’S COMPLICATED.)

Now, I haven’t seen The Sapphires, although suddenly I have an idea of what I’m going to be doing this afternoon, so it could simply be that Sebbens’ character has the smallest role in the movie.  But it makes me wonder just a little.

The, uh, interesting qualities of the US DVD cover were pointed out in this post at FlickFilosopher.  Some of the comments (yes, I read them) argue that this is just a factor of capitalism and marketing:  you want your movie to sell, you put a familiar face in the foreground.

That has an element of truth, although I’m pretty sure someone with a more extensive knowledge of movie advertising could point to lots of successful movies without familiar names and faces on their advertising.  But I query the necessity of foregrounding O’Dowd so much, and using colour filters to obscure the lead actresses.  If the soundtrack art had been used for the DVD cover, I might have rolled my eyes, but I wouldn’t have been moved to make this post.

[How moved was I?  Halfway through writing this up, there was a knock at the door and my copy of the Legend of Korra art book arrived.  AND I HAVEN’T EVEN OPENED THE BOX.]

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7 thoughts on “Whitewashing The Sapphires

  1. Stebbens character was one of the more minor of the girls, but the paleness of her skin is a MAJOR PLOT POINT. Look at her and remember the era the movie is set, and remember what happened to pale skinned Aboriginals with European features.

  2. I do recommend the movie – we really enjoyed it 🙂

    The American posters make me cranky, though, because it’s such a good story about women. I feel like I should have something more intelligent to say, but I really don’t have much more to add . . .

  3. I would really like Deborah Mailman to be an undercover superhero. Maybe we can get Film Victoria to underwrite that. You live with someone who can help us make it!

  4. Pingback: The 63rd Down Under Feminists’ Carnival | can be bitter

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