US actor Faizon Love is suing Universal Studios after he was scrubbed out of the poster for the 2009 film Couples Retreat amid widespread criticism of whitewashing in Hollywood.
The romantic comedy starred a number of actors including Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, but when it came to the promotional efforts for the film, Faizon Love and his on-screen partner Kali Hawn – the only non-white couple – were excluded from posters distributed internationally.
While Love, also known for roles in Elf and Torque, received an apology from the studio more than a decade ago, he has filed a new lawsuit claiming executives broke promises to compensate him further.
According to his complaint, per The Hollywood Reporter, Love was "aghast" when he first discovered the differences between the domestic movie poster and the international version.
"Universal Studios had no problem featuring black actors in the comedic film," his legal documents state.
"But when it came to publicising 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."
It continued: "Although Couples Retreat achieved a first-place box office opening weekend ranking, and went on a spectacular run that grossed more than US$171 million (A$232 million) worldwide, Universal Studios placed Mr Love in the back seat of the ride enjoyed by his six white co-stars."
Back in 2009, British newspapers pointed out the airbrushing, prompting a response from a Universal spokesperson who said it had only been changed to "simplify" the poster.
The studio later went on to say it regretted the offence caused, and would use the original poster going forward.
However, Love's new lawsuit claims he was promised rectification from the studio in the form of "career-making film roles" – which he never received.
"Rather than react with adversity, Mr Love opted for engagement and equanimity. He reached out to Universal Studios and endeavoured to engage constructively," his lawsuit says.
"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."
He revealed that while he received a personal apology over the phone from studio chairman Adam Fogelson and the film's producer, Scott Stuber, he was promised more in exchange for agreeing not to take the case further.
His complaint even states co-star Vaughn warned at the time that airing his grievance would be damaging to his career.
"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.
Love, represented by lawyer Eric George, is alleging breach of contract and fraudulent inducement, as well as a violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act, citing a number of examples of an under representation of black actors.
"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 US$1.4 billion (A$1.9b) worldwide; Ride Along and Ride Along 2 grossed over US$50m in international markets collectively; and Get Out and Us grossed over US$250m each worldwide. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry has been slow to take heed."
Love's lawsuit isn't the first instance of Hollywood facing questions surrounding why black actors were omitted from a film's marketing plan.
In 2015, an image of actor John Boyega was shifted and shrunk for the Chinese movie poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
And in 2013, the Italian posters for 12 Years A Slave featured Brad Pitt – who held a small role in the film – over main star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
Earlier this year, whitewashing in Hollywood was the talk of social media again when the list of Oscar nominees was released, sending the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag trending once more.
Cynthia Erivo, who played American abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Harriet, was the only actor of colour to be nominated for an acting gong.
In recent years, Universal Studios has appeared to pride itself on taking strides ahead of other studios on the diversity front.
In 2017, it established a mentoring and networking initiative called Global Talent Development & Inclusion, and is at the helm of inclusive franchises such as Fast And Furious and Ride Along, as well as critically acclaimed stand-alone films Get Out and Straight Outta Compton.
Universal Studios declined to comment on the Faizon Love lawsuit when approached by The Hollywood Reporter.