Why is an award-winning actor appearing on a reality show? The challenge of being a black actor in the Brazil’s film and TV industry: The case of Babu Santana
By Marques Travae
I’ve never really been a fan of the so-called reality shows. In terms of American reality shows, I’ve watched so few that I can’t even remember which ones that I actually paid any amount of attention to beyond an episode or a few minutes of an episode. I think what really lose interest in these types of programs were the antics of black personalities on some of these shows which, in my mind, bordered somewhere between the ansurd, ridiculous and outrageous. Watching some of these antics, I offered wondered, are these people encouraged to act this way? Is this how they really are or do they show out on television so as to ensure that the program attracts high viewer ratings?
Whatever the reason, as much as I hate stereotypical representations of black people in the media, I would say, if a martian were to come to earth and base his understanding of earth’s people based on these reality shows, he might conlude that black people are a group that should be avoided. In general, many of the personalities that I’ve seen on these programs are not the types I would be dealing with on a regular basis in real life, which is perhaps, subconsciously, one of the reasons I simply have no interest in watching these programs.
Keeping this in mind, with my view of reality shows, why is it that the long-running Brazilian reality show Big Brother Brasil (BBB) pops up from time to time on the pages of this blog? Well, as this is a blog that mostly discusses Brazil from a racial perspective, the BBB brand frequently offers relevent and very revealing clues into how race works in Brazil. Considering that I hardly even touch on most of the numerous little noteworthy incidents that have come out of the show’s 20 seasons, that’s saying something. Last season, number 19, presented a number of incidents that I could have featured on the blog, I just never got around to it. Which brings me to this new season.
Again, as I always have an eye out on things that fall into the category of race, when I saw the usual few black faces that popped up on this season’s edition, I just sort of stored this information in my mental vault in case I ever decided to discuss a few details. Upon seeing the cast, one face immediately caught my attention: actor Babu Santana. I can’t say that I know a lot of Santana’s work, but even not watching a lot of film and TV, I’ve seen him in a number of programs and movies even just flicking through channels.
The films I most remember that featured him were, first, the 2002 film Uma Onda No Ar, a b-movie based in the city of Belo Horizonte featuring a mostly black cast. The film told the true story of a group of friends who maintained a community radio station in the 1980s and endured frequent persecution from the police because of it. Having appeared in dozens of films, novelas and TV series, the crowing glory of Santana’s career is unquestionably his portrayal of the controversial Soul/MPB singer Tim Maia, the man generally credited with introducing Soul Music into the Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) catalog.
The 2015 Maia film brought Santana more recognition for his talents than any of his previous performances and earned him two awards, including the Grande Otelo award, which is known as the Grande Prêmio do Cinema Brasileiro but takes the name of one of Brazil’s greatest, another underappreciated black actor, Sebastião Bernardes de Souza Prata, better known as Grande Otelo.
Babu also took home awards for his supporting role in the 2007 film Estômago. The actor has earned a total of six important awards over the course of a career in which he has appeared in more than a combined 70 television programs and films. With such accolades, this leads to the obvious question: What is such an accomplished, recognized and award-winning actor doing on a reality show?
To be honest, it shouldn’t be very difficult to respond to this question. Before the release of the Tim Maia film, Santana himself touched on how the race factor may have influenced his career up to that point. Having played numerous police officers, drug dealers and criminals in television productions, Santana saw a standard in the roles he had taken up to that point. To this question of repetition, Santana said:
“Society sees a criminal or a policeman as a tall guy with a bad, black face. So I have the perfect look. When I’m asked about this repetition, I ask: “But don’t I interpret these characters well?”
Clearly Santana understands the influence of race in Brazilian society, even as it applies to himself. But you would think that after the critical and comercial success of the 2015 Maia film, Santana’s star would have begun to shine a little brighter. Well, it hasn’t actually turned out that way.
In the game for nearly 20 years now, with a long list of roles in film and on television, Santana’s accomplishments should place him head and shoulders above the rest of the participants on the program who aren’t really that famous. He is also, at age 40, the oldest participant and the only black man. Of course, in Brazil, people don’t like to deal with the race issue when the discussion is the position of the black population. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that people want to pretend isn’t there, even when it is so obvious. In terms of the reasons as to why someone of Santana’s talents is appearing on a reality show, journalism student Simony Maia sees it this way too.
After Santana’s initial appearance on the reality show caught her by surprise, she soon realized that the actor was probably on the program precisely because, even with a long list of roles over the past few decades, he simply wasn’t getting opportunities to show off his talents and, in her view, this was due to one reason: color. What other reason could there be?
The experiences of black actors in the Brazilian entertainment industry could be turned into a book, perhaps we could call such a title, The Case for Racism in Brazilian Film and Television: The Experience of the Afro-Brazilian Actor. In January, actor Lázaro Ramos, arguably the most successful Afro-Brazilian actor of the current era, appeared onstage at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro during the Prêmio Cesgranrio de Teatro award ceremony. The award ceremony honors performers of the theater world. During his tribute to legendary actress Ruth de Souza, who passed away at age 98 last year, Ramos said, “some time ago, being a black actor in this country was more that complicated. It was almost impossible.”
With an exceptional career in which Ramos is the black prince of TV and his actress wife Taís Araújo is the black princess, Ramos has had a long list of leading roles in both film and television. In 2008, Ramos acknowledged that his career was an exception because “TV is changing very slowing.” Perhaps when he spoke of the difficulty of being a black actor some time ago, he was also acknowledging that, as he is an exception, things haven’t really changed that much.
Accepting another award in 2018, the 21st Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, Santana also pointed to Ramos in reference to the number of talented black actors in Brazil. At that film festival, Santana was an actor in four of the films featured during that showcase.
“We have several Lazarus Ramos who have not yet had a chance. He has a television show that raises the issue of racism and has 80% of the white cast. I don’t understand. Only the white guy talks about racism. There was a director who hasn’t given me a role in a film because he said he didn’t have a character with my profile. I asked him if he didn’t have a man in the story.” – Babu Santana
Let us remember the case of the black actors who appeared in the 2002 international blockbuster film Cidade de Deus (City of God). Of that cast of mostly black actors, only actor/musician Seu Jorge has been to carve out a career from his appearance. The actor who played the lead role of the film, Alexandre Rodrigues, was recently found to be driving an Uber to survive. Actor Leandro Firmo, who played the memorably murderous Zé Pequeno character, also hasn’t been able to survive on only acting, only getting small roles in the ocassional television series or film.
After watching a few episodes of BBB 20, Simony Maia points out that, watching Santana, “you can feel a rage in him, one that only those who have had many difficulties in life have. At no point in the program does he show himself as a victim, but he makes his hurt clear.”
And for good reason. After his name appeared in the lineup of the new BBB season, his story gained the attention of the national press. Santana, the father of three children, grew up in the famous Vidigal favela of Rio de Janeiro and at age 40, he revealed having gone through bouts of depression because of not having been able to secure a better financial future for his family. The actor has already experienced a period in which he could only offer bread and butter to his children for breakfast.
In sharing his frustrations on the show, other participants have attempted to downplay his difficulty. Singer/actress Manu Gavassi, for example, attempted to point out the positive side, such as the awards that Santana’s career has brought him, but the reality is that Santana’s co-stars simply can’t deal with the reality of race in Brazil. And in an industry that only promotes what is considered the standard of beauty, people like Santana often have endure much neglect, exclusion and a consistent test of their desire to stay in the industry to keep pressing on with such when there is no guarantee of success. Santana’s awards, if anything, make the situation even more striking. The awards prove that he is a man of immense talent, but he hasn’t received the offers that are proportional to his talent.
Early on in the new season, Santana made his presence felt, sharing some of his experiences as an actor needing work in Brazil:
“I rarely get an invitation to an event that I want to go to, only with a lot, a lot, a lot of luck or buying it. There are festivals that I would like to go to a lot and only go when there is a film. And you see that a bunch of people are there,” he told Gavassi.
And his struggle is now there for all Brazilians to see. In one episode, he said, “Dona Rosa, I want to pay the rent”. The actor has little in his bank account, has debts and gets by with a lot of help from friends. Recent reports have shown that the actor lives in a small, modest home in which he pays BRL$1,500 per month. He shares the 70 square meter homes with his girlfriend, one of his three kids and his best friend.
Having no real income, his family regulary dines in a restaurant near his home and has accumulated on a tab of more than BRL$ 1,000. “Debts are a roller coaster. Sometimes, he makes good money on a job, but he doesn’t work for months,” says actor Hugo Gravitol, a friend who has helped Santana financially and can personally attest to the lack of opportunities he regularly endures.
We know that whenever the topic is racism in Brazil, most will simply see Babu’s case as simply “mimimi” (whining), but it is simply the reality of a black actor in Brazil that certainly many can probably relate to. A reality that affects black Brazilians in a number of genres and to simply downplay all of these situations that repeat themselves again and again is simply avoiding a stark reality.