Controversial Italian 12 Years a Slave Poster Stirs Debate Over Movies and Race

Online uproar over a marketing decision gets at a deeper question about the movie

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Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight

Even though 12 Years a Slave came out nearly two months ago, the acclaimed film is the talk of the Internet again, driven by the photograph of an Italian poster for 12 Anni Schiavo, which comes out in in Italy in February.

Here’s how it started: On Sunday evening, the Italy-residing blogger behind the Tumblr blog Carefree Black Girl posted a photo of the poster in question, in which Brad Pitt‘s soft-focus face is at the center of the advertisement and the movie’s actual star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is relegated to a corner. Though there was some initial skepticism about whether the poster was real, and Italian distributor BiM Distribuzione did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation from TIME on Monday, it was no internet hoax: other pictures of the same poster surfaced, along with a similar Michael Fassbender-focused poster, and now BiM, the company releasing the film in Italy in February, has officially apologized for the poster. As Deadline reports, Lionsgate first issued a statement saying that the posters in question were not authorized by the producers of the film and that Summit, the sales agent for the movie, was trying to stop the posters’ distribution; as of last night, BiM said they were sorry that their ads featured the actors “in a manner inconsistent with approved advertising materials.”

But, of course, the fact that the posters weren’t on-message for the movie’s approved ad campaign isn’t why they made news.

(MOREHenry Louis Gates Jr. Talks 12 Years a Slave)

The main reason the poster photo and initial blog post went viral is that Pitt’s role in the true story of Solomon Northup, the subject of 12 Years a Slave, is actually quite small (though pivotal). The Carefree Black Girl blogger wrote in a follow-up post that she wanted to “spark an interesting discussion about black movies and their marketing and the black artist.” The blogger, who goes by the handle awayoutoftheblue, decries those who would sensationalize the original post — but her observations about the Italian posters, which focus on the film’s white stars, echo some pre-existing criticism of the film.

(h/t Esther Zuckerman at The Atlantic.)

But the larger conversation about Brad Pitt and 12 Years a Slave isn’t the only one in which the poster matters. The “black movies and their marketing” debate that the original blogger hoped to spark — and, based on the high volume of activity on her blog this week, succeeded at sparking — is far larger and older than how to sell 12 Years to foreign audiences.

This isn’t just a case of giving the more recognizable star a bigger photograph, particularly since, as the Carefree Black Girl blogger points out, Michael Fassbender isn’t actually a big movie star in Italy.

Received wisdom in movie marketing holds that non-movie-star African-American actors can’t sell overseas, even though that’s not actually the case in many instances. This past year has been a banner one for black filmmakers, leading many to hope that the cliche that black actors can’t sell abroad will be finally discarded. and the hope that the received wisdom will be questioned and perhaps discarded. And 12 Years a Slave will be a perfect case study: the poster in question was never the only Italian ad for 12 Anni Schiavo out there — others, like this one, already put Ejiofor front and center —  but now, given the studio and distributor’s decision to pull the controversial ads, Ejiofor will get a chance to be the focus of this campaign. Though it would be hard to attribute a movie’s box-office success or failure to a poster campaign, a successful Italian roll-out for the movie would be a chance to show that 12 Years a Slave is one thing that Brad Pitt, however famous he may be, doesn’t need to save.