Fred Kuwornu, an Italian activist and director, screened and discussed his documentary “BlaxploItalian 100 Years of Blackness” in the Italian Cinema on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at Harriman Hall.
Born, raised and schooled in Italy, Kuwornu, who is also Ghanaian, wanted to show the history and mistreatment of black actors in his home country from early silent films to modern times. His documentary is mostly in Italian.
The documentary initiates a social campaign that “demands more diversity in the film industry in Europe,” Kuwornu said.
Modern Italy Professor Mario Mignone arranged for the speaker and screening.
He hoped it would show his students that there are different people in Italy, specifically people from Africa, and how these people have obstacles to overcome to be successful.
“I know how long it took for the Italian Americans to become part of the mainstream in America,” Mignone said. “But now I’m interested to see immigrants who go into Italy. How long that it’ll be taking to become part of the mainstream.”
The documentary demonstrates that few black actors are cast in Italian films and that when they are, they are relegated to degrading roles.
Black actors are almost exclusively cast in low-level roles relating to social problems. Women are expected to play mistresses, prostitutes and cleaning ladies, while men play terrorists, squeegee men and domestic servants.
They rarely get a chance to play more prestigious roles, like doctors, lawyers, nuns, love interests or police commissioners, regardless of how well they fit the part.
“Until the maybe last 5 years I never seen in my country a representation that was very strong about people of color,” Kuwornu said.
Films tend to display only African qualities with no mention of their Italian background. Whether they were born in Italy or not, they are treated as outsiders.
People are denied jobs based on their skin color and for not fitting the Italian profile. Some actors have a difficult time getting cast because they were not black enough and others because they were too black. Black actors are not even allowed to promote products, as they are not cast in commercials.
“Every time society changes also the media has to make a change to be flexible,” Kuwornu said. Most of the audience members were students of HUI 239: Modern Italy.
“I think it was very instructive of the students. Mind-opening certainly,” Mignone said.
Nicholas Walsh, a senior double majoring in biomedical engineering and applied mathematics and statistics, is taking the course not only to fulfill a DEC, but also because he speaks Italian and Italian culture interests him.
“I thought I was going to have some sort of experience learning how African Italians have improved or struggled to make a place in cinema and pop culture in Italy,” Walsh said.
“Every thing he opened with and said I thought was covered pretty comprehensively,” Nicholas said.
The depiction of blacks in Italian cinema mirrors the under-representation of Latino Americans in American films. Like Afro-Italians, Latinos are only seldom cast and when they are, they often play undignified parts.
“In some cases the situation that we try to tell about Italy is a situation that we find in other countries, not only in Italy,” Kuwornu said. “Maybe it’s not for the African descent, but for other ethnic minorities.”
“We have the same issues over here when we talk about diversity,” Mignone said. “It’s not just American, it’s not just Italian. It’s not just English or French. It has to go with the idea of otherness. We are always a little bit afraid of the other, something that is not like us. So how we overcome that fear is the issue. The issue of otherness is not unique.”
Still, Kuwornu’s documentary presented hope that the new generation with help bring about change in culture. The youth is very internationally oriented, so they will hopefully see the diversity of the world and adjust their standards to match.