Denying Brazil

The documentary, Denying Brazil, is a plain-speaking and fascinating unmasking of the white racism endemic in Brazilian television’s most popular genre, which in the USA we would call the soap opera, but which throughout Latin America is known as the telenovela.

The telenovela is more than a soap opera. It has a centrality in everyday life in much of Latin America way beyond its cousin in the USA. At times a series will comment very directly on current events, rather like the special “West Wing” episode produced after 9/11. People are glued to the set across social classes, the audience includes lots of men as well as women — and we’re talking prime time, not daytime. Telenovelas are not only amazingly prominent, but also have a format different to soap operas. Soaps usually run once a week and often for years on end, whereas telenovelas run every weekday night for some months and then come to a final climax.

The genre is now worldwide. Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, in particular, but also other Latin American countries even export their telenovelas quite successfully around the world. Exclusive US rights to the plot-concept of Colombia’s hugely popular “Ugly Betty (Betty La Fea)” were not long ago sold for serious money. In other words, when we’re talking telenovelas, we’re talking about something ultra high profile.

So how they portray— or don’t— people of color is a really big deal in our multi-colored hemisphere. There have been some hard-hitting documentaries on racism in US media, such as the late Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, and Deborah Gee’s Slaying The Dragon. In Denying Brazil Brazilian director Joel Zito Araújo zeroes in on the very same issue: persistent white racism in media, with Brazilian telenovelas — usually acknowledged as the best there are in Latin America — in close-up.

Araújo bluntly admits very early on that despite being himself Afro-Brazilian, as a boy, he was caught up in the very process his documentary attacks. His voice-over is definitely not a “voice-of-God.” As a child, he confesses, telenovelas quite simply fascinated him, along with his family and neighbors, and he and they paid no mind to the fact that the half or more of Brazil’s public with African roots was practically invisible on the screen. Or if present at all, were confined to “black mammies” and other demeaning roles.

To properly grasp the documentary’s message, one needs to take a step back and understand the way race works in Brazil and many Latin American nations. In the USA for most purposes, there is a binary code — one is either black or white, however light-skinned. In much of Latin America, however, the code that dominates is one which puts value on the lightness of skin color, the nearness to being white.

This code obviously still prizes being white as the index of both beauty and intelligence, and disfavors being black as signifying unattractiveness and stupidity, but there is no fixed In-Out as there is in the USA. There is instead a microscopically detailed ladder of racial acceptability, where the more you can “whiten” yourself the better things get for you. It is referred to as branqueamento in Portuguese,   blanqueamiento in Spanish and can be translated to whitening in English.

Over the past hundred years this different system has permitted many Latin American commentators to claim that racism is peculiar to the USA, and that Brazil, for instance, is a “racial democracy” or that Venezuela is a “coffee-colored” country where lots of folk are at least a little mixed in origin, so being lack doesn’t matter. Denying Brazil rips the mask off this comforting myth.

What is striking about the examples Araújo provides in the documentary is how closely in the end Brazilian TV has mirrored US cinema and TV. Until almost the 1990s, white-only casts and black walk-on parts were the norm. In Brazil’s 1969 rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom was played by a white actor in blackface, and “black mammy” servant-roles were standard. In 1988, marking one hundred years since abolition in Brazil, their history was portrayed as one in which generous-hearted whites legislated progress, not where Afro-Brazilians’ protests and insurgency played any role in ending the system. Roll the clock forward to 1995 and the Noronha family in The Next Victim portrays a successful, upper-middle-income, black family (shades of The Cosby Show, but without Bill Cosby’s humor) and was practically the only show to explore the racial dynamics of Brazil with insight. Inevitably, it was canceled, just like the legendary Frank’s Place directed by Tim Reid, which got shifted around the schedule over ten times and was then pulled.

The documentary doesn’t only analyze the shows’ contents. Araújo films a couple of interviews with white TV directors pathetically seeking to justify their preference for white actors in casting choices, as well as some very lively interviews with black screen actors discussing their experience working in the industry. Zezé Motta, who became famous in the 1976 film Xica da Silva (also a recent telenovela), who plays a super-sassy and super-sexy domestic slave, describes how even after that huge success the next role she was offered was a minor part as a servant — which she refused.

An important feature of Denying Brazil is its emphasis on Afro-Brazilian actors’ attempts to challenge TV’s obsession with whiteness and whitening. The documentary contains a number of interviews, including a group interview, with some of the best known black actors of the Brazilian screen, few in number though they are. They speak, often with dry humor, about the numerous professional obstacles they have faced.

Director Joel Zito Araújo is also author of a book of the same title A Negação do Brasil: o Negro na Telenovela Brasileira, published in Brazil (Editora SENAC, São Paulo, 2001) and so far available only in Portuguese, which was based upon his doctoral dissertation in the Communication and Arts School at the University of São Paulo. There he stresses how Afro-Brazilians’ increasing self-assertiveness has also begun to force certain changes, slow and half-hearted though they may have been, in the direction of more adequate portrayals. Truly, our whole hemisphere has a long way to go before its TV comes to grips with these issues. In the mean time, this documentary is a powerful exposé of how deep-seated the problems are in this key cultural institution of Brazil, and in our hemispheric habits of thinking and action.

Denying Brazil has been screened to acclaim in the United States and in Europe. It won the Best Brazilian Film and Best Research awards in the 6th Brazilian International Documentary Festival in 2001, and the Gilberto Freire and Best Screenplay awards in the 5th Recife Film Festival. After a year’s Fulbright at the University of Texas 2001-2002, Araújo is currently beginning work on his second film, this time a feature. For this, in recognition of his achievement in Denying Brazil, he has received funding assistance from Brazil’s Quanta Award. And he has already some plans for his third film, which will be another documentary. For sure, Araújo is a name to watch.

Friday, April 12, 2002 6:00-8:30pm, King Juan Carlos Center, New York University. 53 Washington Square South