Meet Antonio Dikele Distefano, the new Italian superhero filmmaker
The multihyphenate artist aims to provide a much-needed breakthrough for representation in his country
The beautiful Black creative golden age that we’ve been experiencing is now making its way to Italy. Zero, which debuts on Netflix Italia on Wednesday, is sure to be a part of it. A series with a majority Black cast, the story centers on a teen named Omar/Zero (Giuseppe Dave Seke), whose ability to become invisible is a metaphor for the erasure that his community faces. Omar must learn to use his powers to help save the fictitious Barrio district in Milan. The project is the first of its kind to highlight the Black Italian experience.
Its screenwriter and creator, Antonio Dikele Distefano, is the 28-year-old wunderkind of Angolan parents, who grew up in the Northern Italian city of Ravenna. Before his collaboration with Netflix Italia, his resume was already impressive, spanning the range of book and magazine publishing, communications and television.
In his first sit-down with The Undefeated, Dikele Distefano introduces himself and shares predictions for the future of Afro Italian cinema.
This interview has been translated, condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you talk about your background and how Zero came to be for those just becoming familiar with you and your work?
I’m a writer who penned five novels for [publisher] Mondadori. I founded a magazine, Esse Magazine, which is an influential Italian rap publication, and I own a communication agency named Cantera. Recently, I began writing screenplays and my first one was Zero. I can’t really find a precise definition about who I am, but writing [in my life] is always present.
You grew up as the only Black kid in your particular class in Ravenna. What was that like?
Difficult. Mainly because I was poor. I didn’t have the latest toys, the latest fashion and it was hard growing up as the only Black child because our teachers weren’t able to relate. They would ask me questions like, ‘Do you feel Italian?’ in front of the class. Instead, they should’ve been explaining to the class that I was Italian, exactly like my schoolmates. The teachers didn’t have the tools, the means — and maybe not even the skills — to tell what was happening, that Italy has already changed.
How has it changed?
I mean, when in a class there is a Black child for the first time, that is the change I was speaking about. The change occurs when it happens, not when it is accepted by others. Sometimes people forget this thing and keep on saying: ‘We’re not ready’… but how can they say ‘we’re not ready’? If the change has already occurred, we are necessarily ready.
What lessons have you learned while transitioning from novelist to TV personality to now TV show creator?
At the beginning [of my career], I didn’t show up [to things] so [people] thought I was a white guy. But, in my experience, I understood changes could be made through taking action and without protesting. During my first interviews, people were surprised that I was Black because [when] listening to my voice, they didn’t expect it. This gradually vanished. And while some ‘nice’ comments about me are still there, my Blackness became normal. I learned this through experience. The aim should be to make what I present as normal, without stressing the differences [that may be assumed]. We will [only] win this battle through normality.
In Zero, you shared that music is also a protagonist in the story because ‘rap is the language of our age.’ No spoilers, but how does rap music influence the show’s rich and diverse world?
Hip-hop culture inspired my creativity because as a child, Italian music wasn’t able to express what I was living and seeing in my life. When I discovered American and French rap, I immediately found a connection outside of skin color. I felt what they were saying and it inspired me to write for the first time. I wrote rap lyrics which began as novels. It was the ability to express myself and it is the same for our protagonists. For Zero, rap is directly bound with his mother. He keeps the tapes that he listened to with his mother close, as she listened to rap when she was young too.
What are your predictions for the future of Black Italian cinema that will open the doors for actors and creators of color to have opportunities at success?
The future of our representation in the world of cinema depends on the choices the cast makes. If they [move on from Zero to] do quality films, then the cinema representing our community will be quality. At a certain point, I hope that everything [we create] will become normal. I was watching Oprah Winfrey interviewing Eddie Murphy when he shared that with a majority Black cast, Coming 2 America was a global success. It was in that moment I realized that the cast of Zero was totally Black — and I’m Black! I would like the debate about skin color to stop after the first few days and then focus on how the series is written and how the protagonists’ choices were made. When this happens, we will win, and then also I’d like there to be more Black people working behind the scenes: directors of photography, makeup artists, directors — this is very important for me.
With Zero highly anticipated by audiences here in the U.S., what do you want next for yourself and your team once the show hits and reactions begin to come in?
I’d like to open my own production company and make films where we all would no longer be invisible. I hope to make a good and strong impression [with Zero]. Because if you can make a beautiful, effective project with people who before didn’t have opportunities, [then] these people start to exist. Others may decide not to involve them in any case, which is their own choice, but no longer can anyone say ‘we aren’t here’ because, at that point, we will exist in massa [‘en masse’ in Italian].