The Sapphires is a feel-good film about being “black” in a cross-cultural context. I loved it.
Based on the true story of four Aboriginal women who form a singing group and are invited to Vietnam to perform for American troops during the 1960’s, the film has been lazily dubbed “the Australian version of Dreamgirls.” But it’s a lot more than that. So, when I saw the American DVD cover of the film, I cringed a little. It’s at left below, compared to the original Australian cover:
That DVD cover advances a narrative that has gone unchallenged for far too long in commercial films: seeing people of color as stock characters, as supplements to the main white character who anchors the story, steers the drama, and determines audience interest. The problem is that actor Chris O’ Dowd’s fictionalized and wildly funny character (manager David Lovelace) doesn’t anchor the story here. We are so used to this narrative—we’ve grown up with it, we’ve been lured into theaters by it—that The Sapphires distributor capitalized on it, even at the expense of false advertising. Some critics have called this strategic image placement smart, especially when considering the popularity of Chris O’ Dowd in the US. This is understandable.
But there comes a time when “smart” marketing taints the nuance of the product that it seeks to promote. This cover underscores a long history of erasing aboriginal cultures that the Australian government perpetuated from the early 1900’s up until 1970: during these stolen generations, the government forced the removal of Aboriginal children from their families in order to wipe out their culture. Sapphires group member Kay McCray (played by Shari Sebbens) faces this painful legacy in the film and struggles to accept her mixed identity, most strikingly in a scene where she “passes” in a group of white Australian women and later finds comfort in the arms of a black American soldier in Vietnam. Although not part of the tourist image of Australia, director Wayne Blair doesn’t shy away from this longstanding human rights issue.
In some of the most resonant scenes, the singers find themselves in war-torn Vietnam among several black soldiers who, in many ways, suffer the same type of second-class citizenship and racism that the women do in Australia. Both groups find themselves promoting a cause of freedom that they don’t fully understand or believe since they don’t benefit from its rewards in their respective countries.
It’s not every day that we see films like this, where “blackness” is seen outside of a solely African-American/African context and where it becomes a shared awareness between two marginalized groups of people. That’s precisely what made this film refreshing to me: that awareness, that alliance, that acceptance of a shared place. No one owns blackness here. And in the midst of this deeply rich context comes soulful vocals, sequined dresses, a powerful performance by award-winning Aboriginal actress Deborah Mailman and, yes, an especially humorous turn by Chris O’ Dowd as the group’s manager.
The original members of The Sapphires have protested the American DVD cover and, in the spirit of the film’s allied message, called on the NAACP to step in. The protest ignited widespread support across the country and international film community—this week their efforts caused DVD distributor Anchor Bay Films to apologize and promise to change the cover.
But, what does it mean when stories about non-white people have to be whitened in order to be sold in varying markets? What does it mean when distributors can’t rely on the power and interest of non-white stories in order to market them? What happened here is not a rare case. Distributors have voiced similar concerns about marketing “black films” in overseas markets, expressing fears that they don’t sell or attract the “audience.” Or, maybe they do, but in the presence of a dominant narrative that assigns importance based on “stars,” and whiteness, it may be difficult to determine.
Read more of Nijla Mu’min’s columns on film for Bitch.