Friday, November 20, 2009

Universal’s tactical ‘Retreat’

It’s not so much a fact as a truism: black actresses in Hollywood have more than the usual challenges being taken seriously in Hollywood. Confronting one-dimensional characterizations and a shortage of roles, meaningful or otherwise, African American actresses are the victims of a kind of ethnic cleansing.

“Too many people are satisfied with the cardboard darkies that supposedly represent black women on film in the past,” Stanley Crouch observed in a Nov. 9 essay in The Root.

A more recent development puts an exclamation point on his observations. To judge from one studio’s recent tweak of a film’s marketing campaign, talent displayed by black actresses and actors is even subject to being ignored when it’s part of a film.

Universal’s “Couples Retreat,” a comedy about four couples who go on a vacation getaway to rekindle their romances, includes black stars Faizon Love and Kali Hawk in a cast that includes Vince Vaughn, Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell and Jon Favreau.

All four couples are displayed on the poster released for American consumption. But on Nov. 15 The Mail on Sunday (UK) reported that a marketing change had been made for the film’s release in the United Kingdom; the posters promoting the film’s release in the UK five weeks earlier had only three couples. Faizon Love and Kali Hawk's images and names nowhere to be found.

Or they were nowhere to be found. Since word of this towering publicity fail first came out, the studio has since decided against the change, apparently going with the American version worldwide.

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At first Universal explained the gaffe in predictably businesslike terms. A spokesman told The Mail that the original change in the advertising was intended “to simplify the poster to actors who are most recognizable in international markets.”

It’s impossible not to see the wild illogic in that statement. You have to ask, how does one become “recognizable in international markets,” anyway? In a visual culture, why, it just might have something to do with people recognizing your face and your name. Which is pretty much impossible when they can’t find your face or your name on the movie poster, one of the first and most immediate interfaces a movie has with the public.

The American version of the “Couples Retreat” art is bad enough. Love and Hawk are farthest back in the distance, in another ZIP code compared to the other couples. The former UK version — omitting the black couple altogether, by face and by name — is a graphic distillation of a persistent issue: the relative absences of black and minority actors in Hollywood.

It’s made worse, or more obviously unnecessary, when the moviegoing public in the UK is factored in. Did Universal think the omission of the film’s only black couple from its promotional art would be an incentive at the box office? An estimated 1.5 million black people live in the United Kingdom; maybe Universal thinks they never go to the movies. For all its justifications for the marketing strategy Universal has now abandoned, the studio has sent a signal, however unintended, about its value of diversity — its perception of diversity — outside America.

“I think this was an ill-conceived move,” Vivienne Pattison, director of Mediawatch-UK, told The Mail. “We celebrate diversity in Britain and we could have coped with seeing the same poster used in America.”

“Couples Retreat” has gone on to do pretty respectable business: It’s grossed more than $124 million worldwide since its release date in October. And for black and minority actors, that may be the salt in the wound: for years having to do doing patient battle with an industry that marginalizes or excludes them, only to find that industry doing well on the bottom line anyway.

It’s probably enough to make 'em wanna … take a vacation.

Image credits: “Couples Retreat” one-sheets: © 2009 Universal Pictures.

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