Racist, or good marketing? DVD cover for Australian film 'The Sapphires' causes controversy

Spot the difference? The U.S. DVD cover for "The Sapphires," left, has sparked criticism. The Australian version is on the right.

Story highlights

  • The U.S. DVD cover art for an Australian film about Aboriginal soul singers has been criticized
  • The image places the Aboriginal actors in the background, while foregrounding the white lead
  • The U.S. distributors have apologized for the image
  • Some said the criticism was unjustified, as the white actor was the film's best known

The U.S. distributor of an Australian film about a group of Aboriginal women soul singers has apologized for a DVD cover which critics have labeled sexist and racist.

"The Sapphires," a feel-good hit in Australia, told the story of an all-women Aboriginal soul group in the 1960s who overcome racism at home to forge a successful career.

But the cover art for the U.S. release of the DVD, distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment, has drawn a storm of criticism for the way it relegates the film's four Aboriginal women actors to the background, their skin tones rendered a muted blue, and places the white male actor who plays their manager in the foreground.

The manager is played by Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, the best known of the film's actors, who has a rising profile in Hollywood on the back of performances in hits including "Bridesmaids."

On the cover of the Australian release of the DVD, O'Dowd receives equal prominence with his co-stars, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens.

Anchor Bay Entertainment said in a statement that it "regrets any unintentional upset" caused by the DVD, which was released in the U.S. Tuesday.

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"New cover art is being considered for future replenishment orders," the statement said.

The cover art had sparked a social media backlash and drawn nearly 17,000 signatures to an online petition urging Anchor Bay Entertainment to repackage the film.

The petition, started by Melbourne woman Lucy Manne, quoted a London-based film blogger MaryAnn Johanson, who had written about the film's marketing: "Movies about women are rare enough. Movies about black women are even rarer. And now we're gonna pretend the movies about women, whatever their color, aren't even about them at all?"

The original Sapphires -- the singers whose real-life story inspired the film -- also entered the fray, writing to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a powerful civil rights lobby group in the U.S., to boycott the American release of the DVD, Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported.

O'Dowd also weighed in to the debate about the cover art. "It's ridiculous, it's misleading, it's ill-judged, insensitive and everything the film wasn't," he wrote, in a tweet that was later deleted.

But others felt the anger over the cover art was misplaced.

Karl Quinn, national film editor for Australia's Fairfax Media, wrote that the campaign over the cover art was "misguided," arguing that leveraging O'Dowd's profile was "unquestionably the best shot the US distributors have of finding an audience for 'The Sapphires'."

The film's producers, Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne, thanked Anchor Bay for its apology, saying in a joint statement that they hoped that the film's marketing materials would reflect its themes.

"It has always been our hope that the film would play a part in building mutual respect and understanding between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Australia,'' they wrote.