Advertising and marketing missteps are not new – some of the more recent ones that come to mind: the Gucci Blackface turtleneck,the H&M Monkey hoodie and the Prada Blackface storewindow. You would think by now that these big corporations would ensure that a diverse group of decision-makers would be the ones to red flag or green light anything made available for public consumption. The latest case of “what were they thinking” comes from Ancestry.com, the genealogy company that helps you trace your family roots. The television ad hit the airwaves last month in Canada and the spot, called “Inseparable” shows a white man trying to convince a black woman to “escape to the North…across the border” where they could presumably be together – safe from the big, bad racist Americans. Text comes on the screen: “Without you, the story stops here,” and a voiceover urges the viewer to, “Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.”
Of course, social media lashed into this romanticizing of an interracial relationship during the civil war/slavery era when black women were viewed strictly as property and sexual conquests for the white man. And this is one of the key issues that is problematic with history, factual accounts of what happened can be twisted depending on what view you are using to look at them. The lens that you use determines what story you tell. We certainly have seen this in our Canadian history books, which tell the colonial viewpoint of how this country came to be, but that perspective is being challenged by authors such as Daniel Francis in his book National Dreams Myth, Memory, And Canadian History which re-examines what is taught in our high schools.
I have seen firsthand how one story can have many viewpoints, have differing interests and how the narrative can be made to suit the purpose of the lens and the agenda of the audience. My latest film, Hero: Inspired by the Extraordinary Life and Times of Ulric Cross tells the story of a young man from Trinidad who leaves home in 1941 to seek his fortune. He survives the war as the Royal Air Force’s most decorated West Indian. His life then takes another course and he becomes a part of the Pan African movement. Ulric’s life spans key moments of the 20thCentury, including independence in Africa and the Caribbean. We debuted the film last Fall in Toronto at the CaribbeanTales Film Festival and then at the Trinidadand Tobago Film Festival. The world tour began in February in Canada, now it’s London, then the U.S and Ghana. However, what’s most interesting is how each of these different parts of the world views this one man’s story.
There is definitely a pride from the Caribbean – and more specifically the Trinidadian – community in Toronto and Trinidad about Ulric’s roots and his distinguished honour of being the most decorated RAF pilot. In London, the military is planning a parade in his honour – they have selected to focus solely on his serving her majesty’s army. Meanwhile, at the New York African Film Festival, the lens is on Pan Africanism and how Ulric worked in his role as legal counsel to bring independence to Cameroon and Ghana. The latter is in the midst of a campaign to encourage people of African descent to come back to the continent. Dubbed, “The Year of Return” by Ghana’s president, Heroand Ulric’s story are the homecoming that’s needed to celebrate the first black African country to get its independence from the British. We shot part of the film in Ghana and used archival footage of the country during that time period of the late 1940’s, early ‘50’s. It was important to make sure this story was told factually in its visuals as well. Which brings us back to how we recount history, with actual facts. The simplest way is to lay it all out and let the person consuming this information decide how to interpret it. But then it comes back to perspective and their own biases and desire to pull something from history that relates to them. Sadly for Ancestry.com, it was so moved to find a connection between Canadians and Americans who are mixed race, that it failed to realize that much of that DNA stems from a culture of rape and sexual exploitation. Yes, the lens is key to how you see a story, but historical roots should not be twisted to suit that lens. It’s definitely the fastest way to get your ad pulled.