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By Phil Hall | April 8, 2004

“Denying Brazil” is an intriguing documentary with a rather esoteric focus: the long-held taboos and restrictions against black actors in Brazilian television soap operas. Covering the world of Brazilian soaps from the late 1960s to the present (footage from the early days of Brazilian television was not preserved and is thus not considered here), “Denying Brazil” offers a rich selection of footage plus interviews with the groundbreaking performers who helped to push Brazil into the direction of a true multiracial democracy.
Filmmaker Joel Zito Araujo, who is mixed race (Brazilians still use the term “mulatto,” which has long been excised from the American vocabulary), based the film on his own coming-of-age experience as a youthful viewer trying to find other people who shared his heritage on television. At first, it was a rather hard search and the results might be considered demeaning: black Brazilian actresses, not unlike their Hollywood counterparts of the 1930s and 1940s, were inevitably cast as maids while black Brazilian actors were assigned to roles as evil henchmen or excessively loyal bodyguards. In retrospect, however, these roles may have mirrored the second-class status that black Brazilians occupied but they were actually first-class on-screen thanks entirely to the remarkably rich scene-stealing capacity of the black performers. From the footage provided in “Denying Brazil,” the actresses who played the maids in the various soaps literally ran away with the show thanks to their extraordinary comic timing and the good fortune of snagging the funniest lines. One would imagine the presence of these highly talented women as much-needed oxygen in the otherwise soggy and vapid dramatic storylines of these programs.
The push for racial equality on Brazilian television actually began in the late 1960s in the most unlikely way. A soap opera based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (of all things!) created a minor brouhaha when Uncle Tom was played by a white actor in blackface. Black performers created a long-running protest of this inane casting and the show eventually died a premature death. As the 1970s began to see more black Brazilians achieving a greater degree of economic and social opportunity, soap operas began to reflect these societal changes by allowing black performers to essay the roles of white collar professionals. However, these roles were still of a supporting level and it would not be until the 1990s when Brazilian television was ready to allow black performers to have leading roles in soap operas.
Black romantic subplots were, for many years, never included in these programs. Yet in a curious anomaly, interracial relationships and marriages were not uncommon on Brazilian soaps. Unlike American soap operas, which still labor under the concept of the validity of the old anti-miscegenation laws, Brazilian soaps happily offered black and white couples holding hands, kissing and walking down the church aisle.
In a country where more than half of the population is either black or of mixed racial heritage, the social and economic suppression of black Brazilians has long been a thorny issue; even the retelling of Brazilian history has long glossed over the ugliest aspects of the nation’s slavery traditions. Brazilian television executives were unwilling to rock the proverbial boat, as they were more interested in placating their overwhelmingly white middle class audience (not to mention the lily-white, American-financed military dictatorship) rather than championing the cause of racial equality. It would not be until the restoration of democracy in Brazil that an open and mature airing of racial grievances could be allow.
To non-Brazilians, a great deal of emotional impact in “Denying Brazil” may be lost as the local significance of many of the programs detailed here and the fan-based adoration of its stars are unfamiliar to anyone outside of the country. Also, issues on how the long years of dictatorial rule brutally suppressed Brazil’s black population do not receive the depth which they clearly deserve. Yet as a sociological dissection on how popular entertainment can shape racial prejudice and help to build racial justice, “Denying Brazil” is a strong and significant work of intelligence.

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