The image on the U.S. DVD and Blu-ray release of The Sapphires (seen above) suggests that it tells the inspiring story of a white male singer, played by Chris O’Dowd, who discovers his best, crooning self with the support of several female back-up singers who always stand behind him (literally).
If you’ve seen The Sapphires, you know that’s not what the movie’s about at all: it’s actually based on the true story of four aboriginal Australian women who performed as a musical act while frequently grappling with racism and oppression. In the film, O’Dowd plays their plucky, occasionally soused manager, the Irish wind beneath their soulful wings.
As noted by Flick Filosopher’s MaryAnn Johanson, and covered in the Sydney Morning Herald, that discrepancy between reality and DVD cover fiction has sparked an outcry, one that has prompted the four women on whom the movie is based—one of whom happens to be the mother of the screenwriter—to write a letter to the NAACP. Others have launched a Change.org petition asking Anchor Bay Entertainment, the DVD’s distributor, to change the cover image; it has already gathered more than 10,000 signatures. And in recent days, O’Dowd himself has tweeted about the situation, saying: “It’s ridiculous, it’s misleading, it’s ill-judged, insensitive and everything the film wasn’t.” (O’Dowd later deleted the tweet.)
The Dissolve reached out to Anchor Bay for comment; so far, we’ve received no response. But the company did provide a statement to the Australian newspaper The Age in which it says it “regrets any unintentional upset caused by the upcoming U.S. DVD release of The Sapphires” and that “new cover art is being considered for future replenishment orders.” (Update: Anchor Bay later forwarded a copy of the same statement to The Dissolve.)
Not everyone thinks the cover is insensitive. In another piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, writer and editor Karl Quinn characterizes the decision as a wise marketing move that will put the movie—a major hit in Australia, but a less-than-minor one in America—in front of more people. “In the U.S., putting four black women who are not Diana Ross, Beyonce or Rihanna on the cover of a DVD is tantamount to saying ‘this ain't for you, whitey,’” he writes.
The truth is that movie marketers have been engaging in misleading promotional campaigns forever. It’s why Mystic Pizza was sold as an ensemble piece on its poster but turned into The Julia Roberts Story on DVD. It’s why Jesse Eisenberg filed a lawsuit two years ago when he was given top-billing in Camp Hell, a thriller in which he barely appears. Or, if you want to get really weird, it’s why the shlocky, straight-to-DVD oddity Miss Castaway And The Island Girls touts a tour de force performance by Michael Jackson. (So help me, I saw that movie, and Jackson is in it for all of two minutes.)
The point is that what Anchor Bay has done here is fairly typical. In the minds of the marketers, O’Dowd is simply a more known commodity than the actresses standing behind him, whose names, for the record, are Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell. So they’re going with the more recognizable actor and face. (I don’t buy that ridiculous “This ain’t for you, whitey” argument, especially since the movie poster for The Sapphires managed to feature the women prominently while also highlighting O’Dowd.)
This is business as usual. But because of the movie’s subject matter, it’s business that involved some very poor judgment.