How Brazilian ideologies of racial stereotypes apply to Viola Davis and the Oscars
The Oscars and Viola Davis in “The Help”
So once again, Oscar time is upon us, and as usual, the media is clamoring and hyping up the show and trying to make predictions as to which actors and actresses have the best chances for taking home one of the prestigious 13½ inch, 8½ pound trophies. Over the years, I must admit that I was never a fan of the show. The show was simply too bland, too long and too boring to capture my attention for very long. Plus, it always seemed like the nominees and winners were people and movies that simply didn’t interest me. Can somebody please pass the remote?
Still today, I don’t have much interest in watching the show, although in the past decade, African-American actors, though still vastly underrepresented in film, have made noticeable strides during Oscar season. In the past decade, six black actors have won Oscars: Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Mo’nique, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Jamie Foxx. Although I cannot ignore these achievements as the Oscars are usually lily white affairs*, I also cannot ignore the fact that these actors continue to win Oscars for portraying stereotypical figures. Denzel as the violent, brutal, rogue cop in Training Day (2001), Halle Berry as the lusty jezebel in Monster’s Ball (2001), Jamie Foxx as legendary singer Ray Charles in Ray (2004), Forest Whitaker as evil, corrupt Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Last King of Scotland (2006), Jennifer Hudson as a singer in Dreamgirls (2006) and Mo’nique as the angry, abusive mother in Precious (2009).
Now I’m quite sure that there will be folks reading this post who will be thinking, “They won Oscars, this is incredible, why can’t you just celebrate this as a victory?” Well, I’ve already acknowledged this, but you also must understand that the very fact that one must celebrate black victories at the Oscars exposes the sheer invisibility, or more accurately, underrepresentation of African-American actors in American cinema as well as during American cinema’s biggest night. Also, I cherish my role as the party crasher or the spoiler. With that said, I will proceed.
As I wrote in my post on the importance of the late Whitney Houston, I will demonstrate how African-American victories, images and representations are inextricably connected to the situation of Afro-Brazilians. Using two books as the principle reference, this will become clear. In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle analyzed the roles and performances of African-Americans in American films, while in A negação do Brasil – O negro na telenovela brasileira (The Denial of Brazil: the Black/Negro in the Brazilian Soap Opera), Joel Zito Araújo similarly studies the presence of Afro-Brazilian actors in one of Brazil’s most enduring forms of entertainment: the novela (soap opera). Considering just the stereotypes of actors of African descent, in American film, Bogle and others have identified the violent “black brute”, the seductive “jezebel” and the asexual maid/mother (“mammie”), among other figures. On the Brazilian side, Araújo tells us that “the mulato in the novela is still, as a rule, a representation of the stereotype of the coon, someone of bad character, the thief or the resentful.” He also identifies the “seductive mulata (mulata boazuda)” and the asexual maid/mother figure, “Mãe Preta (black mother).” There is also the subservient, docile black man that is known as “Uncle Tom” in the American context while this same figure is known as “Pai João (Father John)” in Brazil.
Before I proceed I must make one clear. Because of the differences in the way black or mixed-race/mulata women can be defined in the two countries, it may appear that these are two distinct categories. I would argue that in both cases, light-skinned or brown-skinned women of African descent can be placed into the same category. For, as David Pilgrim wrote is his article on the Jezebel stereotype in the US, “Black American women of all shades have been portrayed as hypersexual ‘bad-black-girls’, not just light mulattas.” On the Brazilian side, any woman of African descent, light, brown or dark-skinned, can be defined as a mulata if she is considered attractive. Consider the hundreds of brown-skinned dancers one sees in the annual Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. These women are defined as mulatas. Go ‘head, google it.
So, how are African-American victories at the Oscars reflective of the position of Afro-Brazilians actors? Let me break it down. Anyone who has seen Denzel Washington do his thing knows the man has skills and versatility, but it was his role as the violent cop (“black brute”) that won him an Oscar for best actor in 2002. In the Brazilian context, Washington, because he is attractive and his skin tone is not pitch black, could be defined as a mulato. But, as is the case with the mulata, the skin tone doesn’t really matter. He is seen as non-white, in this case, black in the position of “the other”.
Denzel Washington in Training Day
Case in point, consider the violently murderous character, Zé Pequeno, in the award winning Brazilian film City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002). City of God was loosely based on real people from 1970s Rio de Janeiro. At the end of the film, as the credits roll by, one can note that the skin color of the real life Zé Pequeno was many shades lighter than the actor Leandro Firmino, who was chosen to portray the character.
Cidade de Deus (City of God) and actor Leandro Firmino (to the right) as Zé Pequeno
This fact was not lost on scholar Katia Santos, who mentions this in her review of the film. In her words:
“Speaking of black people, it also caught my attention the characterization of the characters. Bené, that was the “good guy”, was a light-skinned mulato, good people. Zé Pequeno, that was indisputably a “bad guy”, was as black as night. In real life, however, both were mulatos and quite light (skinned).”
Leandro Firmino as Zé Pequeno and the real life Zé Pequeno
This play on light, dark and darker skin significance is reminiscent of the infamous TIME magazine cover of the accused murderer OJ Simpson in 1994. Although Simpson is brown-skinned and defined as black, in order to make his appearance more sinister and more criminal in the mind of the American citizen, Simpson’s complexion was darkened considerably for the cover of the magazine. Thus, in the case of Zé Pequeno and OJ Simpson, both were already seen as criminals as they appeared in their actual skin complexions, but for effect and the association of darkness, or blackness, with that that is evil, both were darkened: the real Simpson from his original shade of brown to a fictional darker brown, Pequeno, from his real light skin to a fictionalized very dark brown skin.
OJ Simpson as he appeared on the covers of Newsweek and TIME
Speaking of the image Brazilian society has of black men, Glêides Simone de Figueiredo Formiga writes:
“The generalized fear of uncontrolled violence, pointed out as one of the elements of the association of the expansion of violence, the racial component is utilized to concretize and materialize fear. In other words, fear has a face and a color and it is black. Historically it means crime and delinquency…In addition, this feeling is doubled for blacks themselves for being the target of control and the attempt of generating security.”
In the case of Halle Berry, the former beauty queen had earned her stripes as a versatile actress many years before her appearance as Leticia Musgrave in Monster’s Ball. But one has to wonder if Berry hadn’t been seen in one of the most graphic sex scenes (interracial, I might add) in American film history and thus symbolically cementing her connection to the lascivious jezebel, one of America’s longest standing stereotypes of black women, would she have won the Oscar that night in 2002? According to stereotypes dating back to the slavery era in US, for some, a man wasn’t really a man unless he had had sexual relations with a black woman. In fact, the double meaning of the term “kinky” is not a coincidence. For white slave masters that wanted experimental forms of sexual relations that they wouldn’t dare request of their “classy”, “honorable”, “respectable” white wives, they fulfilled these desires with their black slaves. Since black women had “kinky” hair, these experimental forms of sex were described as being “kinky”.
Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball”
On the Brazilian side, for centuries, mulata women have carried the reputation of having exacerbated sexuality and being sought after by white men that desired the extremes of sexual pleasure, again the type of sexual activity they would not request from their wives. And also as in the American example, black and mulata Brazilian slaves were often used to sexually initiate the male offspring of slave masters. Traditionally, in Brazilian society, non-white women were/are seen as being sexually available while white women were/are viewed as respectable. Also, in both the American and Brazilian context, large, asexual black women carried the stereotype of the domestic servant, “the help”, or the maid. If this woman wasn’t seen as attractive, she became the mother figure of “mammie” in the US and the “mãe preta” in Brazil. If this woman was deemed attractive, she was also prone to being sexually assaulted by the white male of the home.
Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” , Isaura Bruno in “O Direito de Nascer”
Even today in the Brazilian media, many Afro-Brazilian actresses have portrayed domésticas at some time in their career. For example, both actresses Cris Vianna and Roberta Rodrigues have portrayed domésticas that were seduced by the white males in the homes where they worked. In Mulheres Apaixonadas, the white son of the family, Carlinhos, lost his virginity to the maid portrayed by Rodrigues. In the case of Vianna’s character in the novela Duas Caras, the domestic Sabrina is constantly pursued by the playboy, Barretinho. Sabrina swears she could never marry a white man but eventually, this is exactly what happens. This is normally not the case between the black domestic and the white boss or son of the boss in Brazilian soaps or in real life where it is estimated that 80% of Brazilian domestics are Afro-Brazilian women.
Vianna in Duas Caras, left, Rodrigues in Mulheres Apaixonadas, right
Perhaps the most popular version of the presumed sexually available black/mulata woman can be seen in the yearly Carnaval, where scantily clad or nude attractive women dance the Samba and gyrate to percolating beats. Two well-known dancers are the last two Globeleza women, Valéria Valenssa (former) and Aline Prado (current).
Valéria Valenssa and Aline Prado, Globeleza dancers of Carnaval
Brazil in fact has an old saying that places women in a hierarchy according to color: “Branca para casar, mulata para foder e negra para trabalhar (white woman for marriage, mulata woman for fucking, black woman for work)”. Thus, in essence, as black women were deemed either physically attractive or sexually available in their roles as domestic servants, or “the help”, they were seen as being good for work and/or sex while the role of wife was reserved for the woman who was seen as being worthy of such a sacred institution: the white woman. One other role that is often reserved for blacks in either society is the athlete or entertainer. Considering the Oscars earned by Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Hudson, both of whom portrayed singers in their roles, this is also fitting of the stereotype that rich black people must have earned their fame and fortune by way of athletics or music. Case in point: several years ago a study was done on the appearances of Afro-Brazilians on the covers of the Brazilian magazine, Veja, which is somewhat equivalent to the American magazine, Newsweek. Of 1,852 magazine covers over a 35 year period, Afro-Brazilians only appeared as protagonist on 45 covers, or 3% of the total, and of those 3%, the vast majority of them were athletes and singers.
With all of this in mind, my question is this. Viola Davis has a good chance of winning an Oscar for her portrayal of a black domestic servant in a 1960s, southern white household in the movie, The Help. Whether she wins or loses, will this improve the opportunities and visibility of black actors and actresses? I would say no. It seems to me that the people responsible for voting for Oscar winners seem to be telling black actors and actresses, “we will continue to reward you as long as you ‘know your place’.” Thus, the same way that Davis is treated in her character in The Help, if she wins, she will, like black actors and actresses before her, be kept in her place as Davis the actress. As we can see from the histories of black actors in two different societies, the images and roles of African descendants cannot and will not improve until blacks are rewarded for portrayals of characters that are not traditionally set aside for them. That includes the thief, the brute, the seductress, the maid, the athlete or the singer. Persons of African descent exist in every facet and every echelon of life. But until society is not shocked by the fact and can accept it as the norm rather than the exception, a Viola Davis win will be just that, nothing more, nothing less. So, who will portray the next stereotype?
* According to USA Today, of the 332 Oscars awarded since 1929, African-American actors and actresses have won a total of 12 Oscars, a percentage of 4%.