Black Orpheus and the Merging of two Brazilian Nations

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Social Science on 2012-03-31 18:06Z by Steven

Black Orpheus and the Merging of two Brazilian Nations

European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Number 71, October 2001
pages 107-115

Myrian Sepúlveda dos Santos, Associate Professor of Sociology
State University of Rio de Janeiro

The second cinematic remake of the play ‘Orfeu da Conceição’ has sparked a new debate among filmmakers and social scientists, bringing out opposing views on major aspects of Brazilian nationhood, such as race relations, bodily practices and the meaning of Carnival. The Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes wrote the original play, which was presented for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1956. This play is about a tragic love affair between two black characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, posed against the background of carnival in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Orpheus is a gifted musician who meets Eurydice during carnival. It so happens that after falling in love with Orpheus, Eurydice is killed by a man who represents the devil. The desperate Orpheus descends into Hell to rescue her. When he comes back home with the corpse of Eurydice, Mira, who was his former lover, kills him. Central to the play is the defence of the eternity of art set against the tragic reality of life.

Two films were produced based on this same play, and both directors claim to reveal the universal meaning of art against the background of a carnival feast associated with the Brazilian black population. The films were produced in 1959 and 1998. The first, Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) was directed by the French filmmaker Marcel Camus. It is mainly recognised for its utopian view in which love and passion, race relations and carnival are represented. The second film, entitled Orfeu, was directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Cacá Diegues, and has been praised for its commitment to the description of reality. In it, Diegues explored the commodification of bodies, racial conflicts, and the commercialisation of the carnival feast. This director previously belonged to the important movement of Brazilian filmmakers known as cinema novo, which tried to transform cinematic industrial productions into critical and artistic productions. He is also the director of acclaimed Brazilian films such as Bye Bye Brasil, Xica da Silva and Tieta. In his Orpheus film, Diegues used a set of sophisticated cinematic techniques in order to give the illusion of reality. While making the screenplay, he worked with an excellent group of intellectuals and cast many well-known celebrities of Rio’s cultural life rather than using professional actors.

As the latter production was not well received by international film critics, the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso wrote a challenging article in the New York Times defending the recent remake. Veloso criticised the former internationally acclaimed version of the play for depicting Brazilians as exotics using outrageously fanciful colours and the general ‘voodoo for tourists’ ambience (Veloso 2000). Indeed, the film directed by Marcel Camus did win the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was considered the Best Foreign Film and the Best Film, respectively, by the New York Film Critics’ Circle and by the British Academy. In 1960 it received the Golden Globe Award. The acclaimed version of Black Orpheus attempted to produce an ageless representation of art and it fascinated foreign audiences. According to Veloso, however, the film was not well considered by Brazilians.Veloso happened not only to be the author of the soundtrack of the second film, but he also appeared in a short scene in this film, and his wife was one of the producers.

Despite his involvement with the production of the film, Veloso is absolutely right as he points out that although the first production is capable of completely engaging a foreign audience, the ambience of fun and happiness among all the characters is not attractive to most citizens of Rio. For them any possibility of self-recognition in the story diminishes from the earliest scenes. For most Brazilians, the first production seems to be one more in a long list of those commodities that were made para inglês ver, that is, produced according to a foreign idealization of Brazilian customs and dress. Therefore, the musician called attention not only to the diversity of interpretations, but also to the power associated with the different forums that appraise and legitimate the meaning of art. However, to what extent is it possible to affirm that whereas the first film is a mere fairy tale, the second fulfils the task of depicting reality? In addition, how are we to understand the influence of two different historical contexts upon these two films?

In this paper, I will investigate the two cinematic productions, considering them as part of processes that took place within different historical periods. In particular, I will be examining the issues of race relations and bodily pleasures within carnival, as they appear to be overriding in both versions of the play. I will consider that although each film can be seen as part of its respective time, they both represent two one-sided versions of the meaning of carnival practices in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Whereas the first production was produced at the end of the 1950s when the Brazilian ideal of racial democracy was widely accepted, the second was produced at the end of the 1990s when mass media, violence and the rights of ethnic minorities constituted the political agenda of our times. In the second film, from the earliest scenes the focus is on poverty, shootings and injustice. The poor neighbourhood located on the hillsides of the city is continually invaded by brutal police forces, and Eurydice is senselessly killed by the leader of the drug trafficking gang. The decomposing corpses thrown at the edge of the hillside by drug dealers represented Hell…

…From Racial Democracy to Multiculturalism

On the subject of race relations in Brazil, the two cinematic productions of the Greek legend offer two dramatically different approaches. With its all-black cast, the first film brought about a remarkable revolution in the complex racial relations of Brazil. Even so, the cinematic images portray Rio’s natural beauty, the mesmerising sound of drums, and the festive manifestations of life, romanticising the conflict present among the poor and black population that inhabits the hillsides of the city. The film was produced at a time when the myth of racial democracy in Brazil was held, and it reinforced the myth. The more recent production is also very much a product of its time. It portrays racial conflict through the medium of racially radical rap lyrics as well through the images of a white man being executed by a group of predominantly black drug traffickers.

A series of studies developed in the 1970s completely transformed the contemporary approaches to race relations in Brazil as they showed that despite widespread miscegenation, race remained an important indicator of privilege in Brazilian society. Furthermore, they showed that blacks continue to occupy the lower rungs of the socio-economic scale (Hasenbalg 1979). This is a social and political issue that confronts citizens to this day. Based on these studies, many analyses of race relations concluded that the image of Brazil as a racially democratic nation is a fantasy essentially constructed either by the dominant classes or by the Brazilian elite. Based on the assertion that the myth of racial democracy obscures discrimination, many authors maintain that black people need to build their own identities separate from white values and beliefs. According to their analyses there would be an evolving process of ‘racialisation’ whereby Brazilian race relations would become more transparent (Guimarães 2000)…

Nevertheless, if it is true to say that, regardless of the social class to which black people belong, there is prejudice against them in Brazil, it is also true to say that to this day it is almost impossible to represent the majority of the Brazilian population in terms of a strict code of race. I would risk saying that, although the North-American dual model of race is beginning to be appropriated by some groups of the black movement in Brazil, the racial code, which would easily consider those to be of black or of African descent by either European or North American standards, is far from being recognised by the majority of the Brazilian population. Discrimination in Brazil does not occur according to the same mechanisms as it does in the United States. The idea of miscegenation is still widespread in Brazil. Although it involves exclusion of dark-skinned people and represents the mechanism by which racism operates, it also entails a wider acceptance of different cultures, values and beliefs. The Brazilian population defines itself according to more than three hundred terms that relate to race and colour. Although Brazilians are people who see themselves according to multiple definitions, including the opposition between blacks and whites, they are far from being limited to them.

It is also important to point out that the idea of miscegenation has been part of the idea of the nation since the 1930s. It is widely recognised that a new national identity was formulated during Getúlio Vargas’ populist government. This new identity promoted the image of a harmonious and homogeneous whole capable of including all citizens regardless of race, ethnic origins or colour. The imagery of the nation was constituted as the composite of diverse cultural elements such as samba, carnival, and feijoada, all of which are associated with the ‘Brazilian’ population. The Brazilian construction of nationalism conflated the ideas of miscegenation and nation, and this conflation can be considered as the result of a process of negotiation that has not yet been completely concluded.

Myths are not abstract constructions. They are continually manifested through the ways in which most Brazilians define themselves and interact with one another. Gilberto Freyre was one of the authors who first described in positive terms the process of widespread criss-crossing among different social and cultural populations. However, although Freyre has been praised for having pointed out that the blending process in Brazil was highly inclusive (Freyre 1930), he has not been sufficiently criticised for failing to call attention to the fact that the process of inclusion was often cynical and ambivalent. The process of inclusion did not include black people in the same way and in the same arenas as it did for white people. The recognition and positive values attributed to Brazilian miscegenation came with a series of other mythologies, such as the belief in the goodness of progressive whitening and the association between blacks and all sorts of hedonism. One should not overlook the resulting violence and inequalities that have occurred as a result of those contexts…

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The “Americanization” of Racial Identity in Brazil: Recent Experiments with Affirmative Action in a “Racial Democracy”

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy on 2012-03-31 03:51Z by Steven

The “Americanization” of Racial Identity in Brazil: Recent Experiments with Affirmative Action in a “Racial Democracy”

Journal of International Policy Solutions
Volume 5 (Spring 2006)
pages 5-25

Ana Pagano

In 2001, the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development surprised the international community by implementing an affirmative action program. The program, which was the first of its kind to exist in Brazil, mandated an internal hiring quota of twenty percent black (negro) employees. The Ministries of Justice and Foreign Relations followed suit shortly thereafter by implementing similar hiring quotas. Several public universities, beginning with the state university system of Rio de Janeiro, subsequently adopted admissions quotas for black students. Affirmative action became a national priority in 2002 when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso created a program to research how more government agencies could implement percentage goals for blacks, women, and people of low socioeconomic status.

As 2005 drew to a close, the Brazilian Senate approved the most comprehensive piece of affirmative action legislation to date: the Statute of Racial Equality (Estatuto da Igualdade Racial). The Statute calls for increased racial quotas in the public service sector and the media, in addition to a vast array of non-quota based measures intended to counteract structural racism. In a few short years, affirmative action has become a common, though controversial, feature in many public universities and governmental organizations throughout Brazil. Much of its controversy stems from the perception that affirmative action imposes foreign racial distinctions and represents a mode of dealing with racial inequality that is usually associated with the United States.

International civil society played a crucial role in Brazil’s transition from supposed “racial democracy,” a moniker which implies the absence of racism, to a nation with affirmative action. As Telles observes, “the transnationalization of human rights provided new opportunities for social movements generally… the [Brazilian] black movement, often in cooperation with other human rights organizations… established ties with black movement organizations throughout Latin America, the United States, and South Africa.” The black movement formed strategic partnerships with these international organizations to exert pressure on the Brazilian government to introduce affirmative action. Working in tandem, they pushed for measures to bolster the relatively low representation of black Brazilians in higher education, the media, and privileged sectors of employment.

In this paper, I examine the contributions of three major actors to the production of affirmative action discourse and practice in Brazil: civil society, including the black movement and labor organizations; the state, and in particular former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; and international organizations such as the United Nations and various philanthropic organizations. I show that a combination of circumstances involving the three actors created a political environment amenable to affirmative action in a nation popularly identified with harmonious race relations. In order to understand why affirmative action is such a polemical issue in Brazil, it is important to examine the ideological bases for its racial politics. To that end, I will first discuss Brazilian ideologies of race. Next, I will review the trajectory of events that led to the implementation of affirmative action quotas. Finally, I will analyze the contributions of civil society, the Brazilian government, and international organizations to the arrival of affirmative action in Brazil…

…Traditionally, Brazilians have rejected a bipolar (black-white) model of race, preferring instead a multipolar model with a spectrum of terms to describe skin color and physical features rather than supposed genetic makeup. Their preference for phenotypic description, rather than a system of racial classification based on ancestry, reflects the widespread belief that many Brazilians embody a racial mixture. This belief is evident in figures from the Brazilian Census of 2000: nearly 40% of Brazilians identified themselves as brown (pardo), meaning racially mixed. The other Census categories are branco (white), preto (black), indígena (indigenous), and amarelo (yellow/Asian).

In contrast to the U.S., many Brazilians have traditionally conceptualized racial identity as flexible and situational rather than fixed. The ethos of whitening (branqueamento) is one important way in which racial identity has been constructed as malleable in Brazil. “Whitening” refers both to a pseudoscientific theory and to a social practice. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prominent scientists and intellectuals believed that the Brazilian population would grow progressively whiter over time as a result of miscegenation and the mass influx of European immigrants following the abolition of slavery. Although this belief was subsequently debunked, the ethos of whitening has continued to influence racialization practices in Brazil. In this sense, “whitening” refers to many Brazilians’ tendency to identify with the lightest racial category permitted by their skin color. Socioeconomic class plays an important role in social whitening. There is a popular saying in Brazil that “money whitens” (o dinheiro embranquece), meaning that higher socioeconomic status may allow an individual to be perceived as embodying a lighter race category than someone of similar appearance but lower socioeconomic status. Brazilians’ relatively flexible patterns of racialization are often contrasted with the U.S. practice of “hypodescent,” or the tendency to assign mixed-race individuals in the United States to the more socially subordinated racial group they embody, e.g., ““black”” instead of ““white.””…

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Afro-Descendants, Identity, and the Struggle for Development in the Americas

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2012-03-31 03:34Z by Steven

Afro-Descendants, Identity, and the Struggle for Development in the Americas

Michigan State University Press
April 2012
344 pages
6 x 9, notes, references
ISBN: 978-1-61186-040-5

Edited by:

Bernd Reiter, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics
University of South Florida

Kimberly Eison Simmons, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; Director of the Latin American Studies Program
University of South Carolina

A detailed analysis of issues facing African descendants in Latin America

Indigenous people and African descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean have long been affected by a social hierarchy established by elites, through which some groups were racialized and others were normalized. Far from being “racial paradises” populated by an amalgamated “cosmic race” of mulattos and mestizos, Latin America and the Caribbean have long been sites of shifting exploitative strategies and ideologies, ranging from scientific racism and eugenics to the more sophisticated official denial of racism and ethnic difference. This book, among the first to focus on African descendants in the region, brings together diverse reflections from scholars, activists, and funding agency representatives working to end racism and promote human rights in the Americas. By focusing on the ways racism inhibits agency among African descendants and the ways African-descendant groups position themselves in order to overcome obstacles, this interdisciplinary book provides a multi- faceted analysis of one of the gravest contemporary problems in the Americas.

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Invisible citizens?

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2012-03-31 02:22Z by Steven

Invisible citizens?

IDB America: Magazine of Inter-American Development Bank
August 2001

Charo Quesada

Censuses in many Latin American countries omit questions about race, rendering minority groups statistically invisible

If we relied entirely on censuses to understand what the people of Latin America and the Caribbean look like, the picture that would emerge would be a complete fantasy.

While the cities and villages of this part of the world abound with color and vitality thanks to the multitude of ethnic groups that live together on its soil, most of the region’s censuses do not include questions about race or ethnicity. As a result many indigenous communities and, in particular, millions of citizens of African descent, are not officially recognized as such by their governments. In many cases, questions about the respondent’s native language are also absent from census forms.

Despite the fact that more than 30 percent of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean is of indigenous or African descent, less than one-third of the region’s countries gathers information on its population of African descent explicitly. The data collected on indigenous peoples, while somewhat more abundant, tend to be incomplete and flawed.

Since these two groups are not taken into account or are poorly covered in official figures, their particular needs are not reflected by government programs in which resources are allocated for such important areas as health, education, employment, and housing.

The consequences of this fact can be seen in regional statistics on poverty and marginalization, that consistently show indigenous groups and Afro-Latin Americans to be disproportionately disadvantaged. A 1994 World Bank study shows that in Guatemala, where the national poverty rate is 64 percent, the figure climbs to 86.6 percent for the indigenous population. In Peru, the national poverty rate is 49.7 percent, compared with 79 percent for the indigenous population. In Mexico, it is 17.9 percent for the country as a whole, and 80.6 percent among indigenous groups. In general, indigenous and Afro-Latin American communities experience higher infant mortality, illiteracy, and unemployment, and also tend to be less healthy than the white population…

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