Tina Turner, subject of the hit biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, is black, right? Not necessarily, if you go by the movie’s posters: On one, stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne appear bathed in purple lighting, obscuring their skin color. On the other, there’s a minimalist black-and-white line drawing of Turner, all hair and lips, that could easily be a sketch of Kim Basinger. It’s all movie marketing — but what’s race got to do with it?
Plenty, it seems. Aside from the handful of films starring bankable African-Americans like Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes, and Eddie Murphy, more than half the films with black performers to come out since January 1992 have used posters and newspaper ads that disguise the actors’ race — or exclude their likenesses altogether. (By contrast, of the posters for that period’s 100 top-grossing films, only 14 percent used such techniques.) Cases in point:
· South Central and Posse These posters depict their stars in high-contrast sepia tones. In Posse‘s poster, five black actors and one white actor stand together. All of them seem to have the same dark complexion.
· The Bodyguard The blue hue of this poster makes it hard to identify Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner — let alone determine their skin color. It thereby helps to conceal the film’s interracial relationship.
· Menace II Society, Juice, and Trespass All three use a blue tint. Moreover, in the original, all-type Menace newspaper ads, the actors were conspicuously absent.
· Deep Cover On this poster, Fishburne is tinted red.
Racism or not, race does often seem to play a role in how a movie is promoted. For example, Fred Tio, Disney’s vice president of creative services, admits that the poster showing Bassett and Fishburne was placed primarily in urban markets because it was intended for minority audiences. The line-drawing poster, geared toward general audiences, was more widely distributed and used for newspaper ads.
Similarly, New Line’s theatrical marketing president Chris Pula explains the all-type ads for Menace as a way of downplaying its black themes. ”I didn’t want people to open the newspaper and have as the first thing they see two young, black faces,” Pula says. ”People will say, ‘It’s a black movie; I don’t want to see that.’ Whether I like it or not, people will pass judgment on a single image. It’s my job to get the most people into a movie possible.”
In defense of her racially ambiguous design, art director Randi Braun, who helped create Posse‘s image, says the approach has nothing to do with race. ”Black films are more exciting and hipper. It gives you an opportunity to use a bolder, more exciting, contemporary graphic.”
Marketing executives for the other films assert that their advertising decisions were not influenced by the cast members’ race. Most say their choices were based only on the visual appeal of the posters’ stylized colors and designs.
”It reminds me of the annual quote from some movie executive who says he doesn’t care if people are purple, red, or blue in his films — he just wants to make movies about people,” says African-American film critic Elvis Mitchell. ”Then he proves it by making the black people in those posters purple, red, and blue.”