The third episode of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ four-part documentary, Black in Latin America, takes place in my current country of residence: Brazil. He uncovers part of the mystique of this exotic, exoticized country by visiting favelas in Salvador and Rio, beauty salons in Belo Horizonte, and historical sites in Recife and Diamantina, discussing race relations with professors, rappers, actresses, activists, beauticians, community leaders, and religious leaders in a place that has historically billed itself as a “racial democracy.”
Gates expertly outlined a lot of the history of Brazil – as a plantation-based colony of the already mixed-blood Portuguese that saw an incredible amount of carnal relations between the European colonizer and the indigenous people and Africans who were colonized – that I personally knew after having traveled to the country numerous times before settling here, combined with extensive reading (here’s a start). But elucidating this history to an audience that was unaware of it (including the fact that an estimated ten times the number of enslaved Africans brought over to the Americas went to Brazil than to the United States and that the government sponsored a whitening program from the 1880s well into the 20th century) was a very good thing. His butchering of Portuguese names, not so much. Call me pedantic (as someone did in the comments to a previous post), but you are a Harvard professor making a multi-million dollar production; ask a native speaker how to pronounce the shit and at least try! You don’t have to sound like José Carioca, but ‘maya day san-toe’ and ‘Bwah Gentay’? Gimme a break.
Loved the interviews with stunning actress Zezé Motta (you KNOW there’s a racial problem in a country where this woman was described as “ugly”), grounded and affable hip hop star MV Bill (“look at the economic disparity in this country and you see ‘racial democracy’ exposed as a lie”), and elderly firebrand Abdias do Nascimento (bruh is not playing…his bitterness is aged in wood). Loved the images of Salvador, Diamantina, and Rio – the beauty of the people and the natural wonders is virtually unmatched. Loved finding out that one of the identifying rhythms of capoeira developed to warn the slaves, who practiced the martial art clandestinely, of approaching cavalry. Loved the shot of the newsstand with absolutely zero women of color on the magazines (Beyoncé pops up every now and then, but she doesn’t count anyway because she’s Creole, right?). Did not love Gates’ spiel about the necessity of affirmative action in Brazil: while I agree that it has been and continues to be necessary in some form in the United States, we had a university system and a parallel class of qualified, professional blacks who were prepared to move into companies and institutions when affirmative action was first established in the States. And we had the one-drop rule, which – legally – established who was who. Brazil’s public primary education system is a damn disgrace and the same American binary system of race just doesn’t work in the same way; yes, parity programs do need to be put in place in Brazil, but it needs to be a bottom-up approach that is better-tailored to Brazilian realities. That’s just my two-centavos.
My grade: A-