The initial discussion over whether producer Brad Pitt’s brief appearance in 12 Years a Slave was a distraction has died down since the film’s premiere. But it’s been kicked up again by the posters for the film’s Italian release, which focus on the film’s white supporting actors and reduce Chiwetel Ejiofor’s protagonist to a visual footnote. Pitt, of course, is a global star, and Michael Fassbender has those X-Men movies on his resume, so it’s possible to explain Italian distributor BIM’s actions as simple market-whoring; chances are as much effort went into choosing the images as into the cack-handed Photoshop job. But the embedded racism is hard to ignore, not to mention the fact that the images make it look like Ejiofor is running away from Pitt’s giant head.
Casting stars can be a tricky business. Part of the reason Pitt is involved in 12 Years as an actor as well as a producer is because his name, and his face, mean something in international markets. But at Toronto, where 12 Years a Slave premiered, Pitt was judicious and when and where he spoke for the film, showing up at the premiere to draw flashbulbs but bowing out of subsequent press so as not to steal the spotlight. Putting his mug front and center blows that delicate balance to hell.
According to Variety, Lionsgate, whose Summit arm handles 12 Years‘ European sales, is working to have the posters recalled, but for now they live on as examples of how racism and lowest-common-denominator capitalism can work hand in hand.
Update: Peter Sarram, who teaches at John Cabot University in Rome, left a comment below saying that far from being apologetic, BIM’s Marcello De Bellis joked on Facebook that if it were up to him he would have “simply titled the film Slave with a BDSM black patent leather clad woman in high heels whipping the main character on the poster.” (Sarram provided the below screenshot of the thread, as well as the translation.) According to this article, also in Italian, BIM has apologized and will be using images similar to the U.S. campaign, which placed Ejiofor at its center.