Brazilian black cinema

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By FERNÃO PESSOA RAMOS

Reflections on the presence of Afro-descendants and racism in national cinema

There is a debate that is significant for the current understanding of Brazilian cinema. Social alterities, of ethnicity or gender, make up a space referred to as identity. In the Brazilian case, they are mixed with social demands that afflict the vast majority of the population. Issues involving the representation of the black population came to be highlighted in our filmography that until then had been ignored, or seen on a smaller scale.

They manifest themselves, in their reactionary way (racism), since the beginning of our cinema, including in the largest publication of the silent period, the magazine Cineart. They cross the beginning of the spoken word, reaching, in their dilemmas, the work of our main director of the first half of the century, Humberto Mauro. They are also present, challenged by mockery and irony, in the chanchada (with our greatest actor, Grande Otelo), or in the prejudiced pornochanchada, as well as in the folkloric production of the São Paulo studios of the 1950s and in the so-called independent cinema.

In the 1950s and 60s, they emerged, in a more affirmative way, in the pioneering discovery of black empowerment by Nelson Pereira do Santos, Glauber Rocha, Cacá Diegues and Cinema Novo as a whole. In the 1970s, this statement was strengthened in a qualitative way by the powerful (and unfortunately little valued) Soul in the Eye/1973, directed and performed by Zózimo Bulbul, with music by John Coltrane, in a characteristic style of the Cinema Marginal production of the time.

As a black filmmaker, Zózimo Bulbul had, in a certain way (without wanting to force the correspondence), the role of Helena Solberg (The interview/1966), in the female field, within the environment of the “new” cinematographic production of the 1960s/70s: both are talented, intense filmmakers, who were unable to break through the blockade of the high costs of making cinema, dominated, at the time, by white men. The issue of black identity also appears in Retomada films at the turn of the end of the century and in the early years of the XNUMXst century.

More recently, however, there is a differential ingredient that brings newness from the ground up in this periodization: the multiplication of production containing the experience of racism in its own speech (the experience of the side-of-there as side-of-here), coming from cinema younger in the second decade of the new millennium.

The experience in itself of prejudice and racism, of exclusion, are in the images of alternative digital production companies that emerged along with the great demonstrations of the first half of the 2010s and in the small audiovisual production companies in NGOs and other formats that proliferate in urban communities/favelas ; in rural settlements (some in the landless movement) and quilombolas; in indigenous peoples, through initiatives such as the pioneering Video in the Villages, which are now multiplying.

Today this trend seems to be accentuated, introducing, for more than a decade now, new authors coming from social strata that did not have, as protagonists, their voice, and mainly their image, in the history of Brazilian Cinema.

Cinema is an expensive art, difficult and collective to produce. Perhaps for this reason, a tradition with strong popular roots never emerged in it, such as samba in Brazilian popular music. In this century, however, the situation is changing with the considerable lowering of audiovisual production through the emergence of new digital technologies. There is a strong focus on Brazilian production that adheres to agile filming schemes and alternative distribution routes on social networks. And as always in the history of cinema, a new type of production corresponds to new aesthetic forms and audiovisual styles.

Added to this is the structuring of public notices for cinematographic production that began to favor identity aspects of ethnicity and gender. They follow the new social dynamics that brought to the forefront, in an aggressive and urgent way, questions related to this universe and that previously popped up in an isolated way or in more distant orbits. This context has certainly been suspended recently, due to the retrograde positions of the Bolsonaro government that affected the cultural area as a whole, but the stimulus to popular audiovisual must certainly now be resumed, at the point where it was abandoned.

Noel Carvalho in the collection Brazilian black cinema (Papirus), maps this horizon a little, providing an unprecedented kaleidoscope of this production as a whole. The work shows the need to establish a new cut in the traditional diachronic line of the traditional historiography of national cinema. In this sense, we can envisage a kind of alternative anchor, dynamically dialoguing with the strong classic canons of the historiography of Brazilian cinema (outlined by Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes, Alex Viany, Adhemar Gonzaga and others in the last century), but without slipping into the amoeba media, nor tripping over the serial nominalism of micro history.

Thus, a previously more homogeneous and unitary view of popular identity is questioned, and its awareness as a guiding thread, introducing dynamic contradictions that come from groups with particularities of identity that challenge more abstract universals. Then appears the fissure of the fissure, the irremediable decalage exposed as a fracture, in which dilemmas to be faced head on and that go beyond the responsibility and bad conscience of the enlightened middle class about the miseries of our country.

On this responsibility, erroneously called resentment, the composition of a central column of the historiography of national cinema is usually based. The survey of forgotten or undervalued authors, images and narratives points to a iceberg of the new contemporary sensibility, linked to these social groups that we are calling “identitarian”. Thus, evidence previously hidden in its dimension is given shape. Wouldn't that also be the dimension of an affirmative potency, in terms of the establishment of a power, now focused on centrifuging affirmations that are raised as a flag in their “individual” realization, and no longer just reflective as a focus that can emit knowledge?

Portions of the Brazilian middle class, in their engagement in favor of real economic conquests for the majority of the population, have a more traditional view of social struggle, linked to trade unionism or the positions of groups that are more directly close to the workforce. They often believe they can ignore demands linked to questions of identity related to gender or ethnicity, attributing them to regressive ideological formations, or fragmented by singularity. In some cases, the acid humor of prejudice emerges. However, perhaps there is a broader causality at these points, superimposed on the dialectical construct of class domination, which is believed to hold the switch that turns the evolutionary engine of history on and off.

The experiences that the concept of “place of speech” describes, albeit sometimes awkwardly, contain the power to transform socially regressive modes of existence. correspond to a praxis increasingly widespread in our society and which the aforementioned abstract generalizations believe they can ignore. These are generalizations that have already suffered the pressure of negativity, probably since the 1960s of the last century. They compose universals at a level of abstraction in which large conceptual sets acquire a kind of reification of their own, with frozen thickness to become autonomous constructs, often returning to the idealistic realm from which they started to differentiate themselves.

“Place of speech” is a fashionable term, often viewed with suspicion because of its scope and presence in everyday language. It is certainly not the first concept that comes from philosophy to suffer this wear and tear in the media. Existentialism, and also Marxism, for example, are full of them. In our case, place describes an individuality anchored in a mode of existence that brings with it a range of its own, based on experiences related to social affirmations, as well as sensorial, everyday ones, which are affirmed in particularities of ethnicity or gender. Thus, he forms a universe in his being, designating through individuation a social place that he wants to exclude or extinguish.

In the case of black cinema, produced and performed by the black population (using the term by which they are referred to), the place of speech manifests elements that are its own. It refers not only to the universe of particularities of the social experience that others do not have, such as living close to the stigma of slavery, and the violence of everyday racial prejudice due to Afro-Brazilian origin, but also questions related to the universe of the person. It refers to identity in the banality of everyday life, being processed in an actuality in virtual movement.

It is through this that one can pull the thread of a potency of action, in its mobilizing social force. This same “place” can be found (certainly not in a general way) in minority aspects of the female universe and its particular focus of exclusion and violence; in repeated attempts to exterminate and deny original peoples their land; in the separation and prejudices to which LGBTQIA+ groups and others are subjected.

In the arts, and particularly in cinema, these identity incidences are notable and constitute one of the most stimulating aspects of recent contemporary production. Admitting the articulation of authorship in the figure of the director (a problematic generalization, but certainly with some effectiveness), it can be stated that films directed, for example, by female authors, with filmography, have clear singularities, related to gender issues that can be thought of in a feminine sensitivity expressed in the very mise-en-scene.

It would be fascinating to deepen the parameters to explore a phenomenology of the female camera-gaze, which certainly goes beyond the limits of this article. In recent films such as Sensitive In the Father's Shadow/2018, by Gabriela Amaral Almeida (with female photography by Bárbara Álvarez), or in the work of directors with strong authorial filmography such as Ana Carolina, Tatá Amaral, Helena Solberg, Lúcia Murat, Marília Rocha, Petra Costa, Suzana Amaral, Laís Bodansky , Anna Muylaert, or even Jane Campion, in international cinema – this incidence can be breathed in the images, manifesting itself in the multiplicity of particular sensations. Here, the evidence of an expressive identity, reduced to something like a phenomenon in the experience of the senses and affections, is striking.

The same route, in a certainly different horizon, can be distinguished in the production of black directors such as Spike Lee or, in the Brazilian case, in the already mentioned Zózimo Bulbul, in Joel Zito Araújo, Adélia Sampaio, Odilon Lopez, André Novais, Mariana Campos, Camila de Moraes, Viviane Ferreira, Jefferson De (with the pioneering and assertive Dogma Feijoada manifesto: “(1) the film must be written by a black director; (2) the protagonist must be black; (3) the theme of the film it has to be related to black Brazilian culture; etc”), among others.

Also recently, in the beautiful and sensitive mars one/2022 by Gabriel Martins (who is running as a Brazilian Oscar nominee this year), or committed and engaged Provisional Measure/2020 by Lázaro Ramos, we find the specificities of black identity claims clearly outlined. They arise not only in terms of social demands, but also pointing towards their own way of existence to be highlighted and respected.

If not for the pleasure of seeing films in which, rarely in Brazilian Cinema, black characters and actors proliferate throughout the scene, with the individuality that is their own in facial expressions, gestures, modes of behavior, body action, tonalities of speech, forms of direction in language.

In this field of black authorship in Brazilian cinematography, in addition to writing scripts, it is important to highlight, now on the side of “actor-authorship”, the impactful presence of black actors and actresses in our scene. Breaking the stereotypes of subaltern roles, and assuming the leading role, Ruth de Souza, Grande Otelo, Antonio Pitanga, Milton Gonçalves, Zezé Mota, Lázaro Ramos, Seu Jorge, Eliezer Gomes, Luíza Maranhão, Léa Garcia, to name a few, give unique coloring to Brazilian Cinema, constituting the core of its universe. Authorship does not only designate here thematic concerns, or shared points of social claim, but a place of individuation that escapes the scope of the Logos assertive and the construct of subjectivity, to be realized in the progressive process of encountering the actuality of the scene within the shot itself.

What determines, then, this place of expression that makes up a mode of existence in the universe of contemporary societies laden with particularities? First of all, they are modalities that cross formations centered on the most reactionary social groups that are reluctant to open themselves up to glimpse the dimension of determinations of racial or gender prejudice. These are attributes that have been asserting themselves with positivity and power, tending to conflict with reductive generalizations that tend to be more comfortable. Equally, it is difficult to abandon old safe havens in which social positioning vibrates in a more recognizable way, within the field of a didactics of praxis, from a unified voice of knowledge.

To deny the particularities of exclusion that surround black men and women in Brazilian society, and the need for actions to fight with a specific focus, is to ignore the affirmative side of the quota policies that have recently transformed Brazilian universities and are beginning to have an effect in other spheres (including those related to the concrete division of political power, forcing the opening of space for new leaders). It also means denying the oppressive reality faced by the majority of the Brazilian population, sticking to the reactive universalizations of the enlightened position – that of a social knowledge that, although progressive, believes it deserves to be able, in itself, to determine the measure of enlightenment it possesses.

*Fernão Pessoa Ramos is a professor at the Institute of Arts at Unicamp and co-author of New history of Brazilian cinema (sesc).

Text written from the presentation of the book Brazilian black cinema, organized by Noel Carvalho (Papirus, 2022).

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