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Outrage erupts over Alitalia’s blackface ad for new route

July 9, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Alitalia has apologised for a promotional video that featured an actor in blackface makeup portraying former US President Barack Obama – part of an advertising campaign for the Italian airline’s new Rome-Washington route.

The ads, which featured US presidents, were posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube but Alitalia quickly pulled them after complaints started flowing in.

“Alitalia deeply apologises for the offence caused by the promotional video on our Washington route,” Alitalia tweeted.

“It has since been removed. For our company, respect for everyone is mandatory, it was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened.”

The Washington route is a big deal for Alitalia, which is flying back to the US capital after an absence of about 15 years. The Italian airline has recently been in talks to join forces with Delta Air Lines and Air France-KLM.

Blackface refers to using stage makeup to darken one’s complexion to play a darker-skinned person, such as Shakespeare’s Othello.

The practice was formerly in wide use on stage and in minstrel shows – popular entertainment in the US and Britain in the days before television and films. Blackface is now condemned as racist.

Some people defended Alitalia and said the whole thing was a tiresome overreaction.

“People need to chill out,” a Twitter user wrote.

“Too sensitive, it’s blocking out creativity… I do not find this offensive but the humor in it.”

An objection on Twitter to the Alitalia ‘blackface’ ad. The video itself was quickly removed by Alitalia


Similar tensions over media portrayal of race flowed last month in connection with the casting of ‘Chernobyl’, a popular historical drama television mini-series produced by HBO in association with Sky UK. The highly realistic drama depicts the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 in Ukraine, and the unprecedented clean-up efforts that followed.

A UK actress and screenwriter suggested on social media that the show’s creators should have chosen more “people of colour” (PoC) for the cast.

The suggestion drew much ridicule on Twitter, with readers pointing out that 1980s Ukraine, where the drama is set, was not known for its modern-day multiculturalism.

Karla Marie Sweet tweeted that there are “so many great actors of colour” in the UK who “would’ve been amazing” in the series and it was disappointing to see “yet another hit show with a massive cast” that “makes it looks like PoC don’t exist.”

Blackface minstrel in 1890. Ohio, USA

Reaction on Twitter to Karla Marie Sweet’s tweet included:

  • “No offence, but have you seen Ukraine/Russia of 1986?”
  • “Sorry, but you need to learn history.”
  • “You didn’t see PoC because they’re not there!”

One user said ‘Chernobyl’ had perhaps chosen a white cast “for the same reason that Martin Luther King should probably not be played by a white person – because he was black”.

It’s a complicated and highly contentious subject.

Written by Peter Needham

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