The Western World has gone through many societal changes over the last century, and it is crazy to think about the number of things that have changed even in the last fifty years alone. It does appear that we have a come long way in such a short amount of time but we must not kid ourselves, for changes in allowing every citizen to vote or for the pursuit of equal rights might be victories for societal equality but they are changes in legality and not necessarily the mindset. Admittedly the latter often causes the former when enforced en masse but there are always pockets of people who may disagree or those who, through no clear fault of their own, cannot adjust.
But for me as someone raised in a time of ever growing liberty it seems strange that we are still struggling with cinematic issues surrounding race (whitewashing, lack of diversity) and gender (unequal pay, the ‘casting couch’ audition) and these two areas feed into the influence and motivation for this piece.
Now I do accept that films, like many other creative endeavours, are often a product of their time. Not necessarily in a zeitgeist way but still in a way that represents the sensibilities and thoughts of the paying public. This is nothing new, for example Shakespeare could be unsympathetic to specific people or religions should the paying audience (and the royalty) of the time demand it. This almost certainly makes it tough for certain groups to breakout from almost defined and limited opportunities for fear from the producers or directors that such a bold move may sink their film.
But should it be a bold move even nowadays? The first black actor appeared in an Italian film over 100 years ago! Yet in that time I can probably name on one hand those who have succeeded this uncredited trailblazer.
Although being European I am also British and I am aware that our experience of immigration and our attitude to it has historically been different to that of our mainland cousins, one only has to look at the diversity in our sporting teams to see that. But I am digressing, I am here to write about two actresses that for me stand out in Italian genre cinema as having been there and helped shape opinion and the normality of diversity on screen.
As one of the few black women working in Italian genre film in the nineteen-seventies Carla Brait stood out for me and it was in fact while I was watching TORSO that I first conceived the idea for this blog post.
In the film she has a supporting role playing one of the friends of Jane (Suzy Kendall), now this is pretty innocuous as she is one of several friends and is held up as some sort of exotic foreign beauty by a group of small town men purely due to her skin colour (and perhaps alluring clothing). She is also a lesbian ensuring that the cinema crowds get their pound of flesh.
A short while later I revisited fellow giallo THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS, which had a cinematic release the previous year and in which Brait played Mizar, an exotic and somewhat erotic beauty who wrestled men in a nightclub with a style akin to that of the stereotypical African warriors. Or at least so I believe from other films. Once again she is held up almost as a sexual, exotic object perhaps even one that is a little taboo. Well until she meets her untimely death that is.
Simply scanning her sixteen film credits on IMDB shows that several of her roles are limited to that of being a maid, quite often listed as a black maid at that (a similar role that Angela La Vorgna held in YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY both in terms of servitude and sexuality) but I can’t help but feel that simply by being on the screen and normalising the appearance of non-whites on screen would have helped contribute to bringing on a change, if even only a slight one, in Italian genre cinema.
Then there is perhaps the actress most people who read this blog will know. The fun, the entertaining and the one and only Geretta Geretta. Perhaps best known for her role as Rosemary in DEMONS she is arguably one of if not the most successful black actress in Italian genre history having also starred in 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS; MURDER ROCK; SHOCKING DARK and of course RATS:NIGHT OF TERROR, as the kick-ass character Chocolate. Hmm.
While Carla Brait was there to bring a touch of the ‘exotic’ and arguably servitude (be it to a master or in general men) to the the films by the eighties things were different and Geretta Geretta was able to bring more independence and action to her roles.
However both of these women I believe helped normalise the normal through their appearances in these films and for that I salute them, but I do appreciate that we all have a long way to go.
Historically in Italian films it would seem that in the main black women are seen as servants, as exotic objects or quite simply in the end as victims but I think that did change in the eighties. Although since then I struggle to think of many other female actors of colour in contemporary Italian cinema (in fact from the top of my head the only one I can think of is Lorena Cesarini in the TV series Suburra who is an immigrant and a prostitute despite being one of the nicest and most genuine characters in the show. However in the shows defence this is a depiction of the Roman neighbourhood and nothin more).
If this topic is of interest to you then there is a documentary titled ‘BLAXPLOITALIAN‘ by Fred Kudjo to check out.