Universal Faces Racism Lawsuit As Notorious Movie Poster Resurfaces

Couples Retreat
Photofest

If there exists a poster child for racism in Hollywood, it might very well be the marketing for Couples Retreat. The 2009 comedy had an ensemble cast of top comedy actors, but when it came time to putting together the names and faces of the talent for the movie poster, the Black actors were excised from the international edition. Just what did this decision say about Hollywood's view of moviegoers around the world, and what did that say about Universal Pictures, which distributed the motion picture? Although many may ascribe this notorious act of racism to the entertainment industry's pre-woke days, things haven't gotten better, says Couples Retreat star Faizon Love, who on Wednesday filed a fresh lawsuit against Universal over what occurred.

In targeting Universal, Love takes on a studio which has prided itself on advances on the diversity front while being committed to identifying opportunities and training for minorities. In 2017, the Comcast subsidiary established a mentoring-and-networking initiative called Global Talent Development & Inclusion, and the studio has one of the better rosters of inclusive franchises such as Fast and Furious and Ride Along as well as one-offs such as Get Out and Straight Outta Compton. Nevertheless, Universal still faces a reckoning over the 2009 Couples Retreat saga, which certainly isn't the only time that Hollywood faced uncomfortable questions about why Black actors were omitted from the marketing plan. See, for example, the fuss over the absence of John Boyega for the Chinese movie poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

According to Love's new lawsuit, he was "aghast" when he first discovered the differences between the domestic movie poster and the international one (below on the left) for Couples Retreat.

"Universal Studios had no problem featuring Black actors in the comedic film," states the complaint. "But when it came to publicizing the film to international audiences, Universal Studios chose to segregate the motion picture’s White and Black actors... Rather than enjoy maximum visibility with the film’s release, Mr. Love was demoted to the proverbial 'Invisible Man,' as penned by Ralph Ellison. Although Couples Retreat achieved a first-place box office opening weekend ranking, and went on a spectacular run that grossed more than $171 million worldwide, Universal Studios placed Mr. Love in the back seat of the ride enjoyed by his six White costars."

So why is the Couples Retreat movie poster coming up only now in court? The answer is arguably as important.

Back in 2009, U.K. newspapers noted the airbrushing, and it ignited a small fury online. At the time, a Universal spokesperson said that the poster had been changed to "simplify" it, and that the studio regretted the offense caused and was abandoning plans to use the revised poster going forward.

That wasn't the entire story, alleges Love.

"Rather than react with adversity, Mr. Love opted for engagement and equanimity. He reached out to Universal Studios and endeavored to engage constructively," his lawsuit continues. "Universal Studios, ...attempting to assuage Mr. Love and prevent his filing suit, promised both (i) the immediate cessation of the racist international poster, and (ii) prompt recompense to Mr. Love in the form of lucrative, career-making film roles. Universal Studios lied."

Love says that no such roles followed even though some of the folks allegedly involved were high-powered executives. For example, Love says he got a personal apology over the phone from Adam Fogelson, who had just been promoted from head of marketing to studio chairman. Fogelson would later become chairman of STX and has executive produced dozens of movies. Also, Love says he got an apology at the time from Scott Stuber, a producer on Couples Retreat who was under a five-year production deal with Universal. Today, Stuber is head of original films at Netflix. Even Couples Retreat star Vince Vaughn allegedly helped calm any controversy with promises. The lawsuit states that Vaughn was on phone calls with Fogelson and committed to a TV show with him. "Vaughn apparently went so far as to tell Mr. Love that making a big deal about his removal from the poster would not be good for his career at that time, a statement to which Fogelson did not object," states the complaint.

The objectionable movie poster didn't go away. The suit says it is still in circulation on various movie websites around the globe.

Love, represented by a Browne George legal team led by Eric George, also aims to make the case about more than just this one incident. While he's alleging breach of contract and fraudulent inducement over what he didn't get in the decade since the release of Couples Retreat, Love is also asserting a violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act as well as the Unruh Civil Rights Act. To that end, the complaint cribs a lineup of Universal's top executives to show an underrepresentation of Black faces, cites studies of how few acting roles are going to minorities, mentions other instances of movie poster whitewashing (e.g. the Italian movie poster for 12 Years a Slave), and points out how NBCU faced a recent racial complaint from Gabrielle Union.

All while things could be better, as Love's complaint portrays.

"In recent years, box office hits like Black Panther, Ride Along, Ride Along 2, Get Out, and Us have proven that Black-led films can garner not only critical acclaim, but huge financial success for studios and production companies like Defendants, both domestically and abroad," states the complaint. "Black Panther grossed nearly $1.4 billion worldwide; Ride Along and Ride Along 2 grossed over $50 million in international markets collectively; and Get Out and Us grossed over $250 million each worldwide. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry has been slow to take heed."

Universal declined comment.