Would a movie by any other name draw as much attention?
Probably not, say the black activists who have protested what they see as the offensive title of the French-Canadian film "How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired." At least two major black readership newspapers have banned ads for the movie from their pages, while some of the nation's general circulation newspapers have agreed only to publish ads with an abbreviated title: "How to Make Love. . . !!!"
The title, which the film's black writer says was intended to be satirical, also puts many newspapers in the awkward position of using the abbreviated title in their advertising pages and the whole title in news stories.
"I'm not comfortable with this decision; it seems puzzling on the surface," said Dennis Britton, editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, one of several papers that is using different versions of the title in their advertising and editorial sections.
Britton, who handles all questions of content at the paper, said he decided it was OK to use the full title in news stories where "you can more fully explain what (the title) means" to the reader and place it in a context. At the same time, he said, he couldn't defend using the full title in a display ad with no explanation.
"I don't think we should go out of our way to offend our readers," Britton said.
The controversy has been a publicity boon to the film's New York-based distributor, Angelika Films. "How to Make Love. . . !!!" is a low-budget film based on a 1985 novel about a black Haitian writer in Montreal who tests his sexual prowess on a succession of white women, and keeps a diary about the experiences. It has no major stars, an unknown director, and played in 40 other countries without controversy before beginning its U.S. release.
The film has opened in seven American cities (it opens Friday in Los Angeles) and at each stop has prompted public debate.
The chief objection to the movie comes from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. In a June 15 letter, NAACP President Hazel N. Dukes wrote to Angelika Films complaining that "the title perpetuates the stereotype of people of African descent being consumed by passion to the exclusion of all other emotion."
Angelika president Joseph J. M. Saleh said the use of the word Negro is intended in the "international sense," while he said that, "the American sense of the word carries with it the weight of 200 years of prejudices.
"The whole of the film is to make some satire about the way white women perceive the sexual virility of the black man," Saleh said. "If the film were called 'How to Make Love to an Italian,' it would not be a problem. People would laugh at it."
When author and screenplay co-writer Dany Laferriere heard of the NAACP protests, he said he wrote to the NAACP saying that their title--the name of their organization--was as bad as his.
"It's completely laughable that they have the word 'colored' there," the French-speaking Laferriere said through an interpreter in a telephone interview. "I want them to read the book or see the movie first before they criticize the title. That which they don't understand is not my problem. They are very well-intentioned people . . . but this is censorship."
The Los Angeles Black Media Coalition, a group of media professionals, business executives and others, has also protested the movie. Last August, when Angelika was about to sign a distribution deal, the group wrote Saleh to express its "deep distress and distaste" for the title.
When Laemmle Theatres owner Robert Laemmle received a letter from the coalition asking him not to exhibit the film, he invited coalition members to see the film. "We play most of the foreign films," Laemmle said, so it is not unusual for his chain to book films of some controversy. "I did not find any problem with the film . . . I expressed a certain reservation with the title."
The screening did not appease the coalition critics.
"It really didn't matter to me what the movie was about," said coalition director Elaine Pounds, in an interview last week. "The title is offensive and the movie itself didn't change anything."
"The word Negro doesn't bother me," she said. But the full title she found "divisive . . . it furthers a stereotype of black people. It really didn't have that much to do with the movie."
Laferriere said he is "very surprised" at the uproar about the title, since the book has been out since 1985. It was meant to be amusing he said, adding that in a first draft he called it, "How to Make Love to a Negro When It's Raining and You've Got Nothing Else to Do."
Some black circulation newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel and New York's Amsterdam News have rejected ads for the movie--abbreviated or not.
Sentinel advertising manager Preston Webster said he would reject any attempt to place an ad in his paper because, "I find it extremely offensive."