Black actors in Italian cinema have faced tough challenges for decades and are still struggling today; Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker and activist Fred Kudjo Kuwornu aimed to highlight this in his new documentary, “Blaxploitalian: 100 Years of Blackness in Italian Cinema.”
A screening of “Blaxploitalian” occurred in the Lecture Center at 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30, where a packed audience got a preview of the film and a Q&A session with director Kuwornu, and were introduced to the struggles black actors face in the film industry fighting racism and stereotypes.
“‘Blaxploitalian’ is a diasporic, hybrid, critical and cosmopolitan dimension documentary that uncovers the careers of a population of entertainers seldom heard from before: black actors in Italian cinema starting from 1915 when the first black actor appeared in an Italian film,” according to Blaxploitalian.com.
The event was organized by Professor Emeritus Giancarlo Traverso, who created The Luigi and Anita Traverso Endowment to honor his and his brother Giuseppe’s parents, along with the support of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, the Italian Studies Program and CAS.
Initially released in June 2016, Kuwornu created this documentary to give a voice to those who aren’t typically heard: actors of African descent in Italy. His film showcases the last 100 years in Italian cinema, focusing on the roles of various black actors and the effect a lack of representation has on viewers and actors alike. Kuwornu’s works have been presented in numerous universities, Italian Institutes of Culture and film festivals in the US, Canada, Brazil, Africa and Europe.
“‘Blaxploitalian’ has an explicit social mission, like Kuwornu’s previous works. The documentary is a call-to-action to increase diversity not only in Italian film and media industries, but also worldwide,” said Lecturer and Coordinator of Italian Studies Dr. Daria Bozzato, who also coordinated of the event. “That is the reason why we decided to screen this film at SUNY New Paltz. Because, of course, even if this documentary is about the personal struggles Afro-Italian actors have faced for decades, any non-Italian viewer can connect this matter to her own country.”
Within Italy, the population is diverse but the roles minorities play in media are not. Black actors are constantly fighting to find worthwhile Black characters to play since most roles for Black people are stereotypical and offensive. In the documentary, contemporary Black Italian actors such as Denny Mendez and Salvatore Marino detail some of the difficulties they encounter when trying to find non-stereotyped roles in Italian movies and TV shows.
“We need more diversity in media,” said Kuwornu. “Having more diversity in the media can lead to more unity in our society.”
The title of the film is an allusion to “Blaxploitation,” a term referring to a Black film movement of exploitation films. Kuwornu wanted to address the lack of diversity in roles for Black people in media ever since he was a child and noticed the lack of Black people on television.
“People struggle with trying to imagine their identities and futures because of the images that society gives them,” said Kuwornu. “Most of what they see is a negative stereotype.”
“Blaxploitalian” also explores the roots of blaxploitation in Italian media; the harmful stereotypes stem as far back as the time of Italian colonialism in Africa. African men were depicted as stupid and primitive, while African women were viewed as unique sex objects. Ever since these depictions, Italian actors have had difficulty finding roles outside of this limited scope.
“Every semester we have the opportunity to involve students, professors, and members of the community in discussions on topics regarding the Italian and Italian-American experience,” Bozzato said. “Given the numerous students, professors, and members of the community who attended the screening of this documentary and the several questions the director received during the Q&A session, I would say the event was very successful.”