blackness in the movies

Jacqueline Aronis (Journal de Resenhas)
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By WALNICE NOGUEIRA GALVÃO*

Historical balance of the presence of black people in Hollywood cinema and an appendix indicating bibliography and Brazilian films.

It took a hundred years, that is, the same age as cinema, but finally a black woman – Halle Berry, in 2002 – was awarded the Oscar for leading actress. In recent years, this award for black actors has increased: Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman in 2005; apart from Halle Berry, to Denzel Washington (both with impeccably Caucasian features) in 2002; another honorary to Sidney Poitier in the same year.

And we are already forgetting that the black man debuted as a rapist of white women in a founding film of art, the patriotic epic of silent cinema birth of a nation (David W. Griffith, 1915,). To respond to accusations of racism, Griffith would later Intolerance (1916). Considering himself a victim of the ugly sentiment expressed in that title, Griffith anticipated the epics thanks to by Cecil B. de Mille, covering the theme of what he considered to be intolerance in various societies, both in antiquity and in modern times. All this to justify yourself.

Between that and what happens today – when any movie or TV series shows black judges in courtroom scenes, a situation so commonplace that we don’t even pay attention to the extraordinary phenomenon – there is a whole journey, whose stages are worthy of note.

buddy movies Interethnic relations also became commonplace, even if many of them drew their fun from the racial friction between partners, an apparently inexhaustible source of intelligent humor, as seen in the four Deadly machine, who, incidentally, take a declared stand against racism – which is another phenomenon to keep in mind. And café-au-lait love scenes became frequent, although here also with nuances: white with black became common before, taking longer to invert the equation and show black with white (challenging the traditional fantasies of rape). TV series showing common family problems, an old and solidly successful formula for whites, are now staged with blacks. But, according to Spike Lee in Girl 6 (1996), with exotic dancing, screaming and scandals.

The incorporation of the female perspective is not to be underestimated: Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had books adapted; Halle Berry starred in and produced, with Martha Coolidge directing, the Dorothy Dandridge biopic. The unprecedented supporting Oscar for Hattie McDonald in Gone with the Wind (1939) still sanctified the stereotype, with trumps, slushies and exorbitant eye rolls.

Between these extremes, there were memorable moments, drawing an escalation of conquests, parallel to the civil rights movement, making a racist film unthinkable.

And, finally, black directors emerged, guaranteeing the size of the investment and control over the result. From the first of them, the legendary Melvin Van Peebles, with The story of a three-day pass (1968), there is already an illustrious handful: Robert Townsend, the talented clan of Wayans and Hughes, Mario Van Peebles, John Singleton, F. Gary Gray, Forest Whitaker, and the recent debuts of Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Not forgetting the one who turned the movie into a fighting weapon, Spike Lee.

An advanced experiment was Carmen jones (Otto Preminger, 1954), adaptation of Bizet's opera with all blacks, in which Dorothy Dandridge opposite the handsome Harry Belafonte. The actress would live up to the first Oscar nomination for a black protagonist, but who took it was the blonde with blue eyes Grace Kelly. Of the first anti-racists are Shadows (1957), by John Cassavetes, a pioneer in so many things, which places ethnic conflict at the heart of the intrigue; It is The sun is for everybody (Robert Mulligan, 1962), with Gregory Peck playing the lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape in a southern village.

The strength of Sidney Poitier's personality would be associated with several milestones on this journey: he would be the first black man to win an Oscar as a leading man, for A voice in the shadows (1964), by Ralph Nelson, having a romantic role and kissing a white woman on screen; its natural distinction would lend credence to many a film.

Em in the heat of the night (1967), Norman Jewison portrayed the first black FBI police officer in action in the southern backwoods. A white crony makes fun of the fancy name, Virgil, which is not a “black” name, unlike Rastus, Rufus, Remus, Cletus, Cassius, commonly given to slaves on plantations (which is why boxing champion Muhammad Ali repudiated his name of baptism, Cassius Clay). Insinuating that in the South, from where blacks emigrated en masse to the North, fleeing cotton farming and prejudice, things were different, he asks him sarcastically: “Is that what they call you in Chicago, Virgil? ” and the latter responds, sternly, “In Chicago they call me Mister Tibbs”, in a reply that would make history. When slapped by a white man, Tibbs slaps him back – and it was the first time that a black man had done that to a white man in a movie.

In the same year, Guess who's coming to dinner from Stanley Kramer, shows the predicament of the liberal and progressive couple, when they were plundered by their own daughter – who did not even warn her that the groom was black. It is true that he is handsome, handsome, well-educated, elegant, wearing impeccable suits, with credibility as a holder of a university degree; and don't embarrass anyone.

It is from 1969 an extraordinary avant-garde film – daring that its director, Brian de Palma, would never repeat –, Hola Mama!, about staging a play inspired by Les negres, by Jean Genet, in which the actors engage well-thinking white spectators using a fascist strategy of intimidation, painting them black and themselves white. The group of actors also uses urban guerrilla tactics, occupying and blowing up buildings.

Among the attempts to revive the militancy sagas of that time is black panthers (1995), directed by Mario Van Peebles (let's not forget that in 1968, that is, the year when the phenomenon was at its peak, Jules Dassin filmed Black Power). Peebles' film chronicles the formation, development and liquidation of black power in the United States. Characters representing the main figures of the movement can be seen, such as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver, brilliant author of the book on negritude soul on ice, editor of the prestigious magazine ramparts and Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. It is located between Oakland, its headquarters, and San Francisco, in 1967. It is in that year that the party joins the white student movement against the Vietnam War, under the common slogan of “Power to the people”, expanding its threat and signing its destruction.

With an even meager plot – the police recruit, through blackmail, an internal whistleblower to the party –, it gives a good example of the “methods” of the repression that liquidated him. The FBI, with Edgar J. Hoover at the head, took control of the repression, and the state apparatus began to mobilize illegal channels: assassination of leaders, false accusations with planted evidence, attacks and bombs placed in party offices across the country. Among those who escaped execution was Eldridge Cleaver, who fled to Algeria and lived there for many years.

That's how the movement died out. At that time Martin Luther King, creator of the movement for non-violence and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, would be assassinated by a white man, in 1968, after leading the March on Washington to claim the vote by Congress, which was finally achieved, for the Law of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act.

Anyway, Shaft (1971), by Gordon Parks, set off the wave of blaxplotation of the 1970s, putting the total number of low-level films made in the decade at two hundred, featuring black music, violence and ghetto jargon. Private detective John Shaft gets an office with his name on the door, he is the first of his color to receive the honor of such a hero's profession. It would have many sequels and become a TV series. With some ill will and given the coincidence in time, one can consider the creation of Shaft as compensating for the liquidation of black power: a depoliticized hero accepted by whites, in tasks that are no longer social, but strictly of a private nature.

Martin Ritt's original and committed vision would be present in conrack (1974), in which, on the wings of missions in the 1960s, a primary school teacher goes to teach black children to read on an island in South Carolina – until he is fired by the authorities. But there were others like mississippi on fire (1988), by Alan Parker, in which two FBI agents, an organization that fought the movement with ferocity, end up being the vigilante heroes who avenge the death of three activists, two blacks and one Jew, working on the electoral enlistment of the population of color southern; for this, Pauline Kael called the film “perverse”.

The key would be pressed in Murder in Mississippi (1990), by Roger Young. But Hollywood would redeem itself by producing Past ghosts (1996), by Rob Reiner, about the investigation, prosecution and conviction, thirty years later, of the murderer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Memphis, in the 1960s. Whoopi Goldberg contradicts her expertise in cartoon roles by playing a widow Evers remarkable for restraint and haughtiness; she would be awarded an Oscar for supporting for GhostIn 1990.

Announced by the success of the color purple (1985), by Spielberg, based on the book by Alice Walker, the 1990s would bring a wave of unusual films for their quality, ranging from the facts of the struggles for emancipation and their icons – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers , Muhammad Ali – even science fiction about black supremacy and white subjection.

By this time, Denzel Washington was able to play the white nobleman of Much Ado about nothing (1993), directed by Shakespeare's Kenneth Branagh, as well as Peter Brook casting a black man in the role of Hamlet on stage, as seen in Brazil a few years ago. It was usual for a white man with a tanned face to play Othello, which even Orson Welles did not escape. After dressing the archvillain Darth Vader in black in Star Wars (1977), George Lucas would include heroes of African descent in sequels. Contributing, the wronged Politically Incorrect (1998), by Warren Beatty, would teach a lesson in electoral chicanery, in which a campaigning Democratic senator opens up about how to deceive blacks.

The culmination would be reached when Morgan Freeman lent his intrinsic authority and gravity to the roles of President of the United States (in Deep Impact, 1998, directed by Mimi Leder) and, of course, DEUS (The Almighty, 2002, directed by Tom Shadyac) – both hitherto indisputably white. And it is announced that he will embody Nelson Mandela. But few would remember that a visionary Monteiro Lobato, already in 1928, had written a novel called The Black President in which he predicted results like this for the elections in the United States.

Spike Lee's guerrilla cinema addresses substantive ethnic issues. Among many others, so it was malcolm x, based on an unsurpassed autobiography, chronicling the conversion of gangster to spiritual leader. four little girls (1997) is a documentary about the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, in the middle of Sunday worship, when the four girls in the title are killed. Two of the four implicated, still alive, were also incriminated thirty years later. Both films are based on historical facts.

Like Hitchcock, Spike Lee often appears in his films; but, unlike that one, not in flash appearances that make the spectator feel like a game of hide and seek. As if that were not enough, he symbolically tortures the viewer and fights with him, trying to wake him up. It makes the viewer wonder what would be the conditions of maturation of the context that would allow the emergence of a black director with his own vision, so radical and so without concessions. And it only has black issues as its subject. In its collection there are already several films, including the one that meant its discovery, Do the right thing (1989). There, under a sly manner of someone who doesn't want anything, Spike Lee himself, skinny and walking with his feet inside, played the role of a pizza delivery guy, peaceful, who almost unintentionally, but out of indignation at seeing his friend dead accidentally by the police, triggers one of the worst riots in the ghetto.

exemplary is the show time (2000), which satirizes a television program whose screenwriter is inspired by minstrel shows of yesteryear, systematically making fun of black people, who are stupid, steal chickens and like watermelon. Despite this, the program becomes cult and triggers a trend of mistaken adhesions to blackness. The film ends with a historical anthology of cinema, with the most beloved performers camouflaged with the signs of the burnt cork on their complexion, huge scarlet mouth and white gloves – frequent in the heyday of the musical.

The cartoons include an African cannibal cooking a missionary in a cauldron, little calunguinhas with a bone across the top of the hair and, to top it off, a parody of Uncle Tom's Cabin in which Eliza runs away with the baby in her arms as she crosses the river, jumping from one ice cube to another. They leave the viewer with their faces on fire for having watched them without being outraged. Spike Lee is credited with this encyclopedia of racist bad faith in the performing arts and its conscience-manipulating potential. This is how this director plants milestones in the saga of the political journeys of the black movement and its crucial moments towards emancipation and citizenship.

The documentary found in William Greaves, who has been producing and directing them for over thirty years, an apostle. He is dedicated to making films that rescue the memory of black people in the United States. He uncovered forgotten characters and found footage of events no one remembered. It mainly produces educational material and wins one award after another. His films are narrated, depending on the case, by Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte or Toni Morrison.

And this panorama could not miss the many good films that were made about apartheid, collaborating with the campaign aimed at its closure, clarifying the viewer about its implications. They played a prominent role, along with the generalized boycott that, with the objective of winning over the black electorate in the United States, contributed to the victory. Among them, Morgan Freeman's directorial debut in Bopha! - Under the skin (1993), with Danny Glover and Malcolm McDowell, exposing the conflict between a black South African police chief and his anti-apartheid activist son. Here, by the way, comes the memory of the concert of the most militant among rock musicians, held to claim the release of Nelson Mandela, with the theme song by Jerry Dammers, with an unforgettable refrain, sung in unison by the crowd: “Free! Free! Free! Nelson Mandela!". Televised live, it reached 67 countries and 600 million viewers; and, although banned in South Africa, it created a public scandal, of unprecedented scope and repercussions, to which the future president's release from prison, two years later, would not be unrelated.

 

Indicated Bibliography

As for studies on blackness in cinema, among North Americans, the always republished books by Gary Null stand out. The first, which goes from the creation of the Seventh Art to the date of its publication, would later be completed by another that would advance beyond 1970. Furthermore, they are heavily illustrated with photos of films and actors, making it a precious reference, of inestimable usefulness.

And between us, how has it been? The works dedicated to the theme are very recent. This is the field chosen by João Carlos Rodrigues, who wrote The Brazilian black and the cinema (Editora Globo), published for the first time in 1988. Quite refined, it provides a panoramic perspective, but at the same time seeks to define the contours of the main stereotypes current on screens, such as Mulata Boazuda, Mãe Preta, Preto Velho, Malandro , the Favelado, the Spirited Maid. And it shows how a militant perspective can sharpen the analysis.

We recall here the various works by Joel Zito Araújo, who, in addition to defending his thesis and publishing the book The negation of Brazil: The black in the Brazilian telenovela (Editora Senac), he also made a documentary for TV using this material. His research is irreplaceable and if, for the time being, between thesis, book and film, he has only focused on telenovelas – of fundamental importance as creators of images in Latin America, due to their reach in terms of number of spectators –, he announced our cinema as a goal of the next task.

The actor Lázaro Ramos' program on Canal Brasil, Mirror, has brought a lot of material on the subject, including interviews with black actors (who are the living memory of this process, such as Ruth de Souza, Milton Gonçalves, Antonio Pitanga, Zózimo Bulbul, Toni Tornado, Zezé Motta), research and excerpts from films or telenovelas . From this perspective, one should not forget the importance of Grande Otelo, who for half a century warmed up big and small screens with his genius. He perfectly embodied the stereotype of the boçal black man – rolling his wide eyes and making pouty lips that enhanced the volume of his lips – but, at the same time, the extraordinary actor that he was, he proved himself capable of unfolding many other tricks, even going as far as criticizing to that same stereotype.

Between us, with the aim of selecting a representative sample of the various phases and perspectives in the treatment of blackness, the following films deserve consideration:

Miss Girl, 1953, directed by Tom Payne – In a romantic plot, the heroine, played by Eliane Lage and opposite Anselmo Duarte, is an abolitionist, although the daughter of a rich landowner and fights for the end of captivity. In this film, the black is still a slave, appearing in chains and flogged. It was rare that roles were created for blacks, even in a supporting position, as here. Ruth de Souza, who would go on to have a long and distinguished career as an actress, came to the attention of Ruth. The film is an example of the great phase of industrial cinema in São Paulo and of the company Vera Cruz, which in a few years of existence produced films of high technical standard.

black orpheus, 1959 – Adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, with a black cast and a beautiful use of Carnival. French film directed by Marcel Camus, with local production and Brazilian actors (except the North American Marpessa Dawn in the role of Eurídice) belonging to the Teatro Experimental do Negro, from Abdias do Nascimento. Based on the original play by Vinicius de Moraes, with music by Tom Jobim, previously staged at Teatro Municipal do Rio with sets by Niemeyer. Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Oscar for best foreign film. Remade in 1999.

Abolition, 1988 – Trained at the Centro Popular de Cultura (CPC) of the UNE in the 1960s, Zózimo Bulbul, who would become one of the actors most identified with Cinema Novo, directed this documentary, focusing on the hundred years since the signing of the Lei Áurea. Precious interviews with strategic figures for the appreciation of black culture, such as Abdias do Nascimento, Grande Otelo, Joel Rufino and Gilberto Freyre. He goes to the streets and prisons, researching what those who are on the fringes of society think about the situation of blacks after emancipation from captivity. He accumulates awards at the festivals in which he performs.

Ôrí – Head, black consciousness, 1989 – Documentary by Raquel Gerber, filmed in Brazil and Africa. It expands the concept of quilombo, which is now considered as any and every nucleus of black resistance, detected in candomblé, capoeira, music, dance, gesture, ritual, cuisine, etc. It examines several instances, within Brazil and in West African countries, where the Bantu-speaking Yoruba peoples come from. Music by Naná Vasconcelos. During the eleven years of production, it accompanied the formation and growth of black movements in our country, listening to their representatives. Awarded 1st place at the Pan-African Festival of Burkina Faso.

Brazil's denial, 2000, directed by Joel Zito Araújo – More than complete trajectory through the history of telenovela in Brazil, centered on black characters. It analyzes soap operas with an emphasis on actors and the roles they are given, always stereotyped, always negative. The director argues that the constitution of the image is fundamental to support a positive ethnic identity.

City of God, 2002, directed by Fernando Meirelles – The daily life of drug traffickers (the “owners of the hill”) who control the lives of favela residents. Internal wars between rival gangs, wars with the police, wars with the workers who live in the favelas and are their victims. Of a violence rarely seen. Very competent as an action film, in which the suspense, the running around and the shootings get the better of reflection. Due to the narrative focus identified with the favelados, it is located on the opposite side of Tropa de Elite with its narrative focus identified with the police: but both are similar in criminalizing people from the favela.

the daughters of the wind, 2003 – By Joel Zito Araújo, an activist responsible for other notable achievements, such as the aforementioned Brazil's denial. Going against the current of always portraying blacks as marginal and criminals, it brings into play a well-integrated family, throughout its journey and its own internal chronicle. He won eight awards at the Gramado Festival: one for the director and seven for the actors, some of them the most important in black cinema, with an illustrious career, such as Milton Gonçalves, Ruth de Souza and Léa Garcia, who had worked on the first Black Orpheus.

Antonia, 2006 – Director Tata Amaral privileges four singers and dance composers funk, their problems and their specifically feminine demands. The protagonist Antonia is played by Negra Li. Interesting for showing female originality amid the macho timbres of the ball funk, with its songs derogatory of women. The arduous lives they lead in the favelas, where women are discriminated against, their fight for a place in the sun and to overcome their subordinate position.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is professor emeritus at FFLCH at USP. Author, among other books, of To the sound of samba – A reading of the carioca carnival (Perseu Abramo Foundation).

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