The protagonists of the series Zero, which is focused on the Black Italians of the second generation and is based on a novel by the son of Angolan immigrants, help to speed up popular understanding of Italy as a multicultural country.
Antonio Dikele Distefano, who co-wrote the series and whose six books, including the one in which “Zero” was based, says, “I always say that Italy is a country tied to traditions, more than racist.”
“I am convinced that through these things— writing novels, the possibility of making a series-things can change “
#ZERO on @netflix was another great international series! It's the 1st Italian series, with Black actors, as the leads! It was great to see a different perspective of life in Italy. This series has one of the best soundtracks, I'veheard in awhile! Watch this! pic.twitter.com/sWvPB54gCq
— 280orLess (@280_or_less) April 30, 2021
“Zero” is a revolutionary departure since it offers role models for young Black Italians who haven’t seen themselves mirrored in the media, as well as a glimpse at developments in the Italian community that large swaths of the populace haven’t seen.
On private networks, comedy teams are asserting their freedom to use ethnic insults and making slanty-eye expressions as humor, even as “Zero” makes history in Italian television.
RAI, Italy’s largest public broadcasting, has been chastised for failing to silence an Italian rapper’s comments on homophobia in a right-wing political group.
RAI is now warning against — but not outright prohibiting — the usage of blackface in variety shows due to outside pressure.
I love love LOVE watching shows about the African Diaspora. Currently watching Zero which depicts African immigrants in Italy. Enjoying it so far and taking a break from watching yt people pic.twitter.com/zdSEmtOGkL
— MaNyati (@its_cheu2297) April 28, 2021
Activists opposing bias in Italian media point out that it was produced by Netflix, a company headquartered in the United States that has pledged to invest $100 million on improving diversity, rather than by Italian public or private television.
“As a Black Italian, I never saw myself represented in Italian television. Or rather, I saw examples of how Black women were hyper-sexualized, ″ stated Sara Lemlem, an activist and journalist who was part of a group of second-generation Italians protesting racist tropes on Italian TV.
She also said, “There was never a Black woman in a role of an everyday woman: a Black student, a Black nurse, a Black teacher. I never saw myself represented in the country in which I was born and raised.”
“Zero,” which premiered on April 21, quickly became one of the top 10 Netflix shows in Italy.
Perhaps more telling of the series’ impact: Giuseppe Dave Seke, the lead star, was mobbed by Italian schoolchildren clamoring for autographs as he gave an interview in the Milan neighborhood where the series is set less than a week later.
Watch Zero on Netflix. This is the superhero series we needed https://t.co/L5zpHzpu1q
— Wiretap (for Chrome) (@WiretapSocial) April 29, 2021
Seke, a 25-year-old Padova native of Congolese roots, is not a household name in Italy. His first acting role was in “Zero.”
“If you ask these children who is in front of them, they will never tell you: the first Black Italian actor. They will tell you, ‘A superhero,’ or they will tell you, ‘Dave’,” Dikele Distefano exclaims, awestruck by the scene
Zero is a Black Italian pizza bike deliveryman who learns he has a superpower that helps him to become invisible throughout the season.
In a mixed-race Milan neighborhood, he uses it to assist his peers.
It’s a play on the idea of invisibility, which was at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Italian squares last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd’s assassination in the US.
Black Italians gathered to demand reforms to the country’s citizenship laws and to be accepted as members of a community where they are all too frequently excluded.
I only wanted to watch 1-2 episodes of Zero on Netflix before going to sleep, but I couldn't stop so I finished the whole show instead of getting my much needed sleep.
Can't say I rergret it though, because that was a 10/10 show if I ever saw one. Absolutely loved it!
— David 🏳️🌈 | Måneskin 🇮🇹 & Daði 🇮🇸 (@Spaceyeurotrash) April 29, 2021
The focus of the protest campaign has moved from Italian design, where racial gaffes have exposed the absence of Black artistic staff, to Italian media, where a group calling itself CambieRAI staged demonstrations last month requesting that state and private television stations refrain from utilizing racist words and blackface in skits.
CambieRAI is a joke on the name of Italy’s state television, RAI, and the Italian phrase “you will change.”
The campaign, which brings together second-generation Italians from a variety of organizations, also wants RAI, which is financed by obligatory annual payments for everyone who owns a television in Italy, to create a diversity and inclusion, advisory board.
RAI referred last week to a call by other, more prominent organizations to avoid airing shows that used blackface, alleging skits in which actors darkened their skin to impersonate singers such as Beyonce or Ghali, an Italian rapper of Tunisian origin.
Have yall watched Zero on Netflix?? Imma need season 2 pic.twitter.com/RdqfwwMcLD
— Nisha ✨ (@nishachels) May 5, 2021
The Associated Press quoted Giovanni Parapini, RAI’s head of social causes, as saying, “We said we were sorry, and we made a formal commitment to inform all of our editors to ask that they don’t use blackface anymore.”
Thanks to editorial independence, he said it was as far as they could go.
The organizations said they saw the commitment as positive, even though it stopped short of the desired prohibition since RAI acknowledged that blackface was a concern.
However, according to Parapini, the public network does not consider the CambieRAI group’s critique since “that would mean that RAI in all these years did nothing for integration.”
He acknowledged that the network has never been criticized by regulators and cited examples of programming that included minorities, ranging from a Gambia-born sportscaster identified as Idris in the 1990s to proposals for a televised festival showcasing second-generation Italians in July.
Dikele Distefano says the target for him isn’t to eradicate racial words since it is “a lost battle.” He considers his art to be a catalyst for progress.
He’s now consulting on a project with a 70 percent second-generation Italian cast and crew.
He acknowledged that “Zero” had also aided in the hiring of a Black hairstylist, a Black screenwriter, and a director of Arab and Italian descent.