Film about slain Communist revolutionary Carlos Marighella once again shows Brazil’s problem with skin color: Is actor Seu Jorge “too dark” for the role?

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Note: I have to admit, I LOVE a good debate! And this latest one coming out Brazil is most def worth analysis, critique and positioning. It also fascinates me when such issues have some parallel going on in the United States, which again is the case in today’s piece. After the suffocation murder of 19-year old Pedro Henrique Gonzaga in Rio de Janeiro a few months ago, many Brazilians immediately remembered a similar murder of the African-American Eric Garner in New York in 2014. When Marina Silva ran in recent years and last year, Joaquim Barbosa flirted with the idea of running for president in Brazil’s elections, and possibly becoming the first elected black president of Brazil, obviously many made the comparison with the two-term American President Barack Obama.

Given the shocking number of murders of black Brazilians at the hands of Military Police, Brazilian activists adapted the slogan “Vidas Negras Importam”, the literal Portuguese translation of “Black Lives Matter”, a movement which is said to speak to the same situation in the US. I could go on and on with the similarities, but right now I want to get to today’s piece. 

Recently, in the US, there have been rumblings by many African-Americans who reject the idea of actor Will Smith portraying Richard Williams, the father of tennis greats Venus and Serena in a film. “Can’t they find a darker actor?” or, “Isn’t Eldris Alba available?” were just a few of the questions people asked when thinking of Will Smith, a man who is several shades lighter than Richard Williams, playing the role. 

will smith richard williams
The idea of actor Will Smith portraying Richard Williams drew criticism because Smith is much lighter-skinned than Williams

Contrast this with the non-reaction to actor Denzel Washington playing human rights activist Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic that took the icon’s name. These issues play out similarly in Brazil. In past articles, I’ve pointed out the manner in which famous/important Afro-Brazilians were either whitened in historic paintings or photos or in other vehicles such as TV commercials, as was the case with the controversy behind perhaps Brazil’s greatest writer, the light-skinned mulatto Machado de Assis, being portrayed by a white actor in a bank commercial. After protests by the Movimento Negro (black movement), the white actor was replaced with a very brown-skinned actor as if to solidify or re-affirm that this historic figure was of African descent.

This issue recently played out again when actress Taís Araújo decided to step down from possibly portraying award-winning scientist Joana D’Arc Félix when critics suggested she was too light-skinned to portray Félix in a possible biopic. Which leads to today’s topic.

Marighella 2

The life of the Brazilian Communist revolutionary Carlos Marighella has been re-discovered by many sectors of Brazil’s social movements. In 2012, the Racionais MCs, arguably Brazil’s greatest Hip Hop group, released the song and video “Mil Faces de um Homem Leal (Marighella)” (A thousand faces of a loyal man (Marighella)). There was also a 2012 film about the controversial figure entitled Marighella – O Retrato Falado Do Guerrilheiro, in addition to a number of books and articles that be found about the revolutionary. So, what’s the controversy all about?

Well, opposite from a controversy from last year in which activists of the Movimento Negro rejected the choice of the light-skinned singer Fabiana Cozza to portray a dark-skinned samba singer Dona Ivone Lara in a musical, people are taking issue with the actor/musician Seu Jorge, a very dark-skinned Afro-Brazilian man, portraying the light-skinned Carlos Marighella.

One piece went as far as to call out the contradictions of black militants vehemently rejecting Cozza to play Dona Ivone, while at the same time accepting some people who have a skin tone equal to that of Cozza having access to a college education through the affirmative action program. The film marks the debut of the Bahian actor Wagner Moura as director. For the actor/director, “Marighella is an iconic character for Brazilian politics. I hope that once the film hits theaters, people will have more curiosity and more research on the history of our country,” says the actor.

To be sure, I see legitimacy in both sides, but first, before I fully develop my argument, let’s get a few details about the controversy. Below are a number of articles of various authors, some just divulging the facts, others choosing one side or another. I will weigh in on the issue at the end of this article.

Mário Magalhães, Carlos Marighella
Mário Magalhães (left), author of a Carlos Marighella biography

Was Marighella black? Author of biography on guerrilla warrior speaks out

According to journalist Mário Magalhães, Carlos Marighella was not white and suffered from racism. Controversy emerged after a film debut about the militant, directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge

By SS Silvana Sousa

On February 18, the journalist Mário Magalhães, author of the biography Marighella: O guerrilheiro que incendiou o mundo (Marighella: The guerrilla who set the world on fire), addressed Internet controversy over the ethnicity of Marighella, one of the main organizers of the armed struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil and the main character of film directed by Wagner Moura and starring musician/actor Seu Jorge.

According to Magalhães, there is no doubt that Marighella was not white. So much so that he was a victim of racism in different episodes. “Marighella’s enemies knew he wasn’t white. In 1947, Deputy Marighella criticized a colleague who had taken a car (the “Baronesa”) from the Câmara (Chamber, seat of government) to the state of Bahia. Altamirando Requião reacted: “I don’t allow elements of color, such as you, to interfere in my discourse,” wrote the biographer in one of two posts he published on Twitter on the subject.

Racism (2): The source of the news is the Rio de Janeiro newspaper “Tribuna Popular”, of December 27,1947. The passage is in the biography Marighella: O guerrilheiro que incendiou o mundo (@cialetras), pag. 188. There were many episodes in which Marigella was the target of racism. https://t.co/TozTiCQczh%u2014 Mário Magalhães (@mariomagalhaes_) February 18, 2019

Was Marighella black?

The controversy surrounding the guerrilla’s skin color emerged after the release of the film Mariguella, during the Berlin Festival on February 15th. Based on the Magalhães biography, the work portrays the last five years of the militant/writer/politician’s life, ending with his death in an ambush in 1969.

Speaking about the film, Wagner Moura, along with Seu Jorge, said that the Brazilian state is racist and compared Marighella’s death to that of State Representative Marielle Franco. “Marighella, a black revolutionary, was murdered by state forces in 1969 in his car and, 50 years later, a black female councilwoman died in the same way, probably from state agents,” Moura said. The director also concluded by stating that the Brazilian police are not trained to protect their citizens, but the state, which according to him, chooses their enemies.

Reaction to Wagner Moura’s comments

Faced with Moura’s statement and Seu Jorge’s choice as the protagonist, internet users questioned Marighella’s ethnicity, comparing photos of the guerrilla and the actor and even using a document that is supposedly the death certificate of the guerrilla, where his skin color is listed as branco (white).

tweet - look so much
How did Wagner manage to find an actor who looks so much like Mariguella? – Renata Alves (@RenataAlves_C) February 17, 2019
death cert
She exalts Mariguella but on the death certificate … pic.twitter.com/NuCybzbSem
%u2014 evilyn diniz (@evilynwicca) February 18, 2019

Death certificate in which Marighella was listed as white (branca)

It was after the controversy that the biographer Mário Magalhães decided to position himself on the issue. After the two Twitter posts, the journalist told an Internet user that “it is a historical lie to say that Marighella was white.” “It’s like saying the Earth is flat.”

Marighella

Who was Mariguella?

Born on the outskirts of Salvador, Carlos Mariguella was one of the main articulators of the armed struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil and co-founder of the Ação Libertadora Nacional, coming to be considered “inimigo número um” (enemy number one) of the military regime.

cev - marighella preso em sp em 1939
Marighella after being arrested in São Paulo in 1939

His first passage through the prison, however, would occur in 1932, during the Estado Novo decreed by Getúlio Vargas, after writing a poem with criticism of the interventor Juracy Magalhães. After leaving the civil engineering course and joining the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), he would be arrested again in 1936 and 1939.

With the end of the Estado Novo and the re-democratization of the country, he was elected federal deputy member of the PCB-BA in 1946, but would lose the title two years later, when the PCB became considered illegal by the government of President Eurico Gaspar Dutra.

Ambush
Carlos Marighella, killed in 1969 in ambush

Even clandestinely, he continued to lead the party and even spent two years in China in the 1950s. In 1964, after the military coup, he was shot and imprisoned inside a cinema, in Rio, and was released in 1965 by a court decision. The following year, he opted for the armed struggle, to which he dedicated himself until being killed in 1969 during an ambush in the capital of São Paulo.

* Trainee under the supervision of Humberto Rezende

cev - marighella preso no rio em 1936
Marighella after his arrest in Rio in 1936

Marighella’s enemies knew he wasn’t white.

By Marina Souza

Even before his arrival in Brazil, the film Marighella, directed by Wagner Moura, has generated some controversy among Brazilians. In addition to the screams of public protest and the plaque of Marielle Franco present at the Berlin Festival last Friday (15), some internet users decided to discuss the skin color of the guerrilla portrayed in the feature film. The fact that Seu Jorge was the chosen actor to play the role is being criticized by some people who insist that Marighella was not black.

Speeches such as this, which deny the guerrilla as a black person, legitimize – once again – the constant attempts of embranquecimento (whitening) suffered by the black population in the country. To say that Carlos Marighella, leader of the armed struggle against the Brazilian Military Dictatorship, was black is not guesswork or opinion, but a historical fact. The fact that Seu Jorge possesses a pele de cor retinta (dark skin tone) does not mean that other tones are not part of the black phenotype.

At the same time, it becomes interesting and curious to analyze the silence that is made when black characters are embranquecidos (whitened) in the cinema. Wagner Moura’s choice takes into consideration criteria such as representation, having placed a dark-skinned actor to play a character with a lighter black tonality is perhaps a way to reaffirm the racial group and the discussions that surround him daily.

Marighella - mother-father
In the middle, Marighella as child, his mother Maria Rita to the left and father Augusto.

It is necessary that the Brazilian society, composed mainly of black people, recognizes the necessity and, above all, the importance of a black actor interpreting blacks. Invisibility, whether in the world of the arts, corporate or academia, is a type of violence that needs to be broken. To deny the blackness of the guerrilla will not change the story.

Black as Marighella

Seu Jorge already foresees questions about his escalation to the role. Marighella was a mulatto, son of a black woman and an Italian man. “Black, he was. He was raised in Bahia and had very strong black roots. The fact of having light skin does not extinguish his blackness, just as (rapper) Mano Brown’s color does not disqualify him,” he says.

According to Seu Jorge, blackness manifests itself in people beyond melanin. “If you are born and raised in a favela, eat feijoada and listen to samba, you are black. In Brazil, blackness is not only associated with skin color, but involves the cultural issues with which we were raised,” he concludes.

Placing a black actor as Marighella is racism, says professor

In an article for the website Gazeta do Povo, professor Paulo Cruz criticized the choice of Seu Jorge to play the protagonist of the Wagner Moura film and association of a black man to a terrorist

About to debut in Brazil, the feature film Marighella, by Wagner Moura, is a hot topic. In large part, because, as reported on the 11th (February), the production of the film chose a black actor to interpret the Brazilian guerrilla: Seu Jorge. For the professor and writer Paulo Cruz, who is black, the choice can be interpreted as a form of racism, since his ethnicity was certainly not a hallmark of the communist, who died during the military regime.

“The characterization of Carlos Marighella as black – here I use the definition of the IBGE, which divides negros into pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns or mestiços, persons pof mixed race) – inviting the singer Seu Jorge to the role, was a trick to make the racial element, of lesser influence in the life and struggle of Marighella, a differential – false, he says. The problem is that, faced with a notoriously controversial figure, not all blacks may want to see their color associated with such a character,” Cruz wrote in the Gazeta do Povo column on February 19.

The professor pointed out that, usually, organized groups usually revolt when black personalities are interpreted by lighter skinned actors. In that case, racism would be reversed, associating a questionable personality with blacks.

“Why have the entities of the black movement not even issued a note on the flagrant case of falsification and characterization of a terrorist as black – when the complaint is almost always this, that blacks only play the role of crooks? Certainly, because they agree with his ideology and his terrorist acts, calling them a “struggle for democracy and social justice” – information contradicted, inclusively, by former guerrillas such as politicians Eduardo Jorge and Fernando Gabeira,” concludes Cruz.

The color of intolerance

By Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca

We see the intolerance of much of the black movement in the recent episode involving singer Fabiana Cozza. Chosen to play the legendary samba artist Dona Ivone Lara in a musical in honor of her, Fabiana was intimidated and verbally assaulted for not having the same skin as Ivone. She’s black, but apparently não é negra o suficiente (she’s not black enough).

There is no doubt that a person with lighter skin and finer traits suffers less racism in Brazil. More than a binary division in which one side seeks to expel or kill the other, racism in Brazil is in the preference for white: the closer to the white of European appearance is, the more one is respected and valued. So, to this day, many people try to change or disguise features associated with black people. All this is real and justifies the action of the black movements. What is troubling is the realization of the ease with which one goes from this observation to the attempt to impose a hierarchy of victimization, for which everything is racism and flagrant injustice is tolerated – or even demanded with the air of deep indignation – in the name of the cause.

Let’s be objective. Did the choice of a lighter-skinned actress have skin tone as a criterion? The producers wanted to make Ivone Lara lighter and so they chose Fabiana Cozza? Or was Fabiana Cozza chosen for a number of reasons (acting ability, musical talent, proximity to Ivone Lara, knowledge of the repertoire, etc.) which had nothing to do with it? It seems quite obvious that this is the case. Ivone Lara’s own family felt honored to have Fabiana Cozza representing the primeira-dama do samba (first lady of samba).

A similar case in the opposite direction occurred recently, but without anything close to this repercussion: Wagner Moura chose Seu Jorge to play Carlos Marighella in the film. Marighella was a light-skinned mulatto; he himself defined himself as a “mulato baiano” (mulatto from Bahia). Many Brazilians maybe consider him white. Seu Jorge é negro de pele escura (Seu Jorge is a dark-skinned black man). Director Wagner Moura chose him precisely for that. He said, “To me, he [Marighella] is a black hero.” No one was indignant nor asked that Seu Jorge resign from the role. Here, however, we have the choice based on skin color serving a political criterion.

This type of problem occurs because the black Brazilian movement has been unable up to today to take seriously the fact of Brazilian miscegenation. Importing the criteria of the American movement, it imposed on Brazilian society a binary and total division between white (oppressors) and black (oppressed). When forced to comment on miscegenation, it is generally attributed to past acts of violence, the rape of the slave by the senhor branco (white master) – which is not true; this type of violence also existed in the USA, and did not generate a miscegenation comparable to the Brazilian. Our differential was and continues to be the significant number of interracial marriages, such as the one that gave birth to Fabiana Cozza.

Unable to accept a fact – which would require more nuance in the positions of the black movement – we fall into the current dilemma, in which light-skinned mestiços (as well as mestiços with indigenous features) are thrown in as pieces of convenience: when appropriate, they are “blacks “; when they don’t fit, they’re white, or “not black enough.” When it is to justify quotas, any trait of miscegenation serves to characterize a black person. When it is to enforce quotas, racial tribunals come to decide whether that mestiço can be considered black.

The fight against racism should not serve as a safe-conduct to nullify the artistic criterion. In cases where black actors are deprecated because of their color, then we have reason to stand against and press for change. When other motives lead to the selection of an actor or performer, no. When the anti-racist movement stops fighting against discrimination and only imposes a contrary hierarchy, instead of promoting equality and building bridges between what racism wants to separate, it makes it difficult to overcome racism in Brazil. More people comparing skin tones in an eternal competition to see who is more oppressed and therefore has the right to raise the accusing finger to the other: is this what will solve the racial issue in Brazil?

Note from BW of Brazil: So, what is my position on this issue? Well, first, as I wrote above, there are points on both sides in which I agree and this is only because, in recent times I’ve had to change my position on the idea that ALL pretos (blacks) and pardos (brown/persons of mixed race) should be considered as belonging to the população negra.

While I can agree that most, if not all pretos, which one would assume consists of persons of African descent with dark skin and/or more salient African features should be considered black, I cannot with a clear conscious define all persons who identify or are classified as pardos as always black.

As I’ve discussed this in a number of articles, one of which features a great breakdown by the president of the Educafro NGO Frei Davi, in which he points out, in reality, a pardo can look like anything. Someone who is clearly of African descent but with a certain level of racial admixture from very little to very much. A pardo can be a person who looks almost white, but not quite. A pardo can be a person of mixed indigenous ancestry or someone whose race people simply can’t agree on. A pardo can also be a person who looks, for most people, black, even having a certain level of traces of non-African ancestry. To put it simple terms, some pardos clearly look black, while others don’t necessarily look black. I have to establish this point before moving on.

Once again returning to this subject, I have to deal with a true catch-22 situation that black activists must really deal with first before moving on to other facets of racial politics. The question of the pardo can in fact undermine the whole struggle of black activists and the support of race-based policies that address racial inequality.

In a nutshell, you cannot on the one hand claim that ALL pardos should be considered black and then turn around and exclude one of those pardos from entering a university through affirmative action policies because they don’t look “black enough”. This sets up an immediate contradiction in which such attitudes seek to use the pardo population and combine it with the preto population and then define the two are representative of the whole black population.

My point is, you cannot define these people as black to boost your numbers and thus argue that black representation is too low in various sectors of society but then turn around and exclude these people as “too white” when they attempt to make use of the quota system. 

The situation involving a very dark-skinned Seu Jorge being cast as the light-skinned Carlos Marighella is an excellent example in which black activists have, in recent years, fought to reclaim the blackness of certain personalities in Brazilian history that many may not have known were black or weren’t considered black by many people.

Several years ago, we had the case in which one of Brazil’s greatest literary figures, Machado de Assis, was portrayed as a white man in a bank commercial. Taking knowledge of the fact, black militants immediately went into action and demanded that the Machado character be portrayed by a black man. Not only was the white actor replaced, but by an actor who was several shades darker that the skin tone Machado was known to have had.

In the past decade or so, artists and vendors have also been selling a t-shirt with Machado’s image on it but instead of including the writer’s wavy hair, artists have taken the liberty of giving Machado a huge afro. The message in both? The man considered to be Brazil’s greatest writer was black and people should know this.

This reclaiming of the blackness of historical figures was also the topic of the 2007 Month of Black Consciousness celebration in the city of São Paulo. That year, the images of numerous famous people of Brazilian history were blown up and featured on 16-foot banners that were prominently hung on several buildings in São Paulo. Some of those figures included singer Clara Nunes, president of the republic, Nilo Peçanha, psychoanalyst Virgínia Leone Bicudo, musician Chiquinha Gonzaga and musician/composer Carlos Gomes, all of whom were light-skinned and whom many people probably considered white having gone through a certain whitening process in the minds of the people.

In the 1999 Globo TV miniseries entitled Chiquinha Gonzaga, for example, the composer whose name was the title of the series was portrayed by a white actress, Regina Duarte. In old paintings and photos, I’ve noted how the photos of some of these people are often re-touched to give them a more European appearance. It is part of Brazil’s infamous practice and promotion of embranquecimento, the goal of which is to whiten the country’s past in a certain respect and promote a whiter future through the process of miscegenation of the current population. There is absolutely NO debating this fact.

The casting of Seu Jorge as the light-skinned mulatto Carlos Marighella, on the other hand, similar to the casting of a clearly, brown-skinned actor to portray the light-skinned Machado de Assis, follows along the thought of darkening the memory of this historical figure, redeeming black history, and making Brazil remember its African ancestry. Clearly, neither Machado nor Marighella were as dark as the actors chosen to portray them, but why is this a problem?

Had either been cast as a blond or brunette white man, white Brazilians most likely would not have raised a fuss about such a selection. We know this true because the white population had no problem seeing historic figures such as Tia Ciata, Machado de Assis, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Biblical characters featured in the Os Dez Mandamentos (The Ten Commandments) as well as mythical/fictional characters such as Iemanjá, Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos portrayed by white actorsOn the other hand, the objection of a dark-skinned actor portraying Marighella speaks to a deeper issue that springs from the same value system within a large percentage of the Brazilian population that doesn’t want its offspring to appear “too black”.

It emerges from the same practice of lighter-skinned Brazilians who will not deny the fact that their grandfather or grandmother was black because their own light skin shows that that ancestor’s progeny is now represented by lighter skin. The Movimento Negro (Brazil’s black movement) hasn’t expressed any rejection to the casting of Seu Jorge as Marighella because these organizations have fought for decades to have both pretos and pardos classified as black, so why would they object? In a Brazil that believes “we are all equal”, why would a dark-skinned Marighella be a problem if people did in fact see all Brazilians as being equal? 

The reaction against Marighella being portrayed as clearly black reminds me of two other past comments involving skin color and important figures in Brazil’s history. But before getting into them, let’s first establish what writer Machado de Assis actually looked like.

machado
Writer Machado de Assis

Since his death in 1908, there has been a clear attempt to leave a more whitened image of the famed writer in the imaginations of the Brazilian people. In the choice of portraits of Machado de Assis released for viewing by the general public, most commonly chosen were those in which the writer appeared attenuated by the pincenê (glasses) and beard. The French critic, Jean-Michel Massa observed:

“Some consider him to be white. Examining the portraits that remained of him, it can be seen that, as an adult, he had, like many Brazilians, some negroid features: slightly curly hair, a very fleshy lower lip, a nose that was previously flattened. These features, more or less accentuated according to the various portraits, are well covered by the use of the beard.”

And if portraits attempting to portray a whiter Assis weren’t enough, we also have the comments of Brazilians elites, such as writer/journalist José Veríssimo, who wrote an article in the Jornal do Comércio 30 days after the death of Assis. Even acknowledging Assis as a mestiço, Veríssimo went on to write that Machado: “A mulatto, in fact, was a Greek of the best era, due to his deep sense of beauty, for the harmony of his life, for the eurythmy of his work.”

In a letter, historian/diplomat Joaquim Nabuco also revealed his rejection of Assis being defined a “mulatto”. On the topic, Nabuco wrote:

“I would not have called Machado a mulatto and I think nothing would hurt him more than this synthesis (…). To me, Machado was a white man, and I think that’s why he became [sic]; when there was strange blood, it didn’t affect his perfect Caucasian characterization. At least I only saw in him the Greek. Our poor friend, so sensitive, would prefer oblivion to glory with the devastation about his origins.”

In these passages, we note that both men knew of Assis’s racial origins, but due to his stature and importance, they could not let him go down in history being labeled with such a racially inferior term such as “mulatto”. While the two previous comments are taken from Machado’s era, late 19th to early 20th century, the next comment was made in 2007 concerning a photo used during the 2007 celebration of the November Month of Black Consciousness mentioned above of poet/literary critic Mário de Andrade (1893-1945).

banners SP 2
At left, then governor of São Paulo, José Serra, presents the release of the Month of Black Consciousness campaign featuring numerous banners of prominent Brazilians of African descent

In the same manner in which Assis’s racial classification was debated, leaning toward attaching a Greek classification to him, we see the same thing happen in relation to Andrade. Regarding the controversy over a photo that showed a clearly black Andrade, the then literature consultant of the Afro Brasil Museum in São Paulo, Oswaldo de Camargo, knew the deal: “What seems to bother people is knowing that Mário de Andrade is an African descendant.”

mario_de_andrade_1
In November of 2007, a controversy emerged over whether the banner, taken from the photo at left, was actually Mário de Andrade (right)

Camargo stated that the photo chosen to turn into the 16-foot banner depicting Andrade “emphasizes his negroid features.” Camargo went on to say that he had never seen a photo of Andrade in which his African ancestry was so evident. And it was these clear negroid features as well as a possible case of a mistaken photo that were at the root of the controversy.

Both the then the state secretary of Culture, Carlos Augusto Calil, and Professor Telê Ancona guaranteed that the portrait in question was not of Mário de Andrade, with Ancona insisting that the photo at the heart of the debate was actually the former futebol player, Mário Andrada, who was active around the same time as Andrade. After analyzing the photos, I also conclude that the photo chosen and displayed as Andrade was in fact that of Andrada. But what I’d like to point out here are the reactions of two people regarding the controversy.

Literary critic Antonio Candido knew Mário de Andrade personally and saw the controversy as nothing important. Carlos Augusto de Andrade, the nephew of Andrade the literary critic said that debating the African origins of Mário de Andrade was totally irrelevant. In his view: “To be black or not, both in the case of Machado de Assis and Mário de Andrade, does not affect the literary genius of the two writers.”

Both the literary critic Antonio Candido and Andrade’s nephew, Carlos Augusto de Andrade, are white and both see pointing out the fact that Andrade was black as having no importance. Which brings me back to the current controversy over the portrayal of the Communist revolutionary Carlos Marighella by Seu Jorge.

When the subject is race in Brazil, I consistently see the topic being dealt with in two ways. In the first place, when dealing with important historical figures of African descent that have light skin, whiten them in the memory of the people. And two, when whitening the subject in question isn’t possible, then downplay the question of race as not important. These are the same tactics that a modern-day Brazil continues to employ in terms of race.

The 50th anniversary of the death of Carlos Marighella will be in November of this year and with a new film debuting about Marighella, I don’t see it as strange at all that so many Brazilians are reacting in this manner. For all intents and purposes, they had nearly whitened his memory in the five decades that have passed since his death. Downplaying race and whitening are both methods of erasing the memories of figures who weren’t white, which fits perfectly in line with a much desired Eurocentric Brazil.

The new black identity of 21st century activists seeks to rescue these lost volumes of black history covered up by a Eurocentric framing of history, which is why the very debate is so emblematic of the manner in which Brazil is in a constant search for a whiteness that its black and mixed-race roots won’t let it get away with.

Fighting the process of whitening is the reason that black activists can accept a Seu Jorge as Marighella, but simultaneously reject Fabiana Cozza as Dona Ivone Lara. One may see this as a contradictory stance, but when we consider the fact that history is ALWAYS told from the European perspective, and juxtaposing this with Brazil’s historic promotion of whitening, we can see the choosing of Seu Jorge as Marighella as a manner of “blackening” a figure whose light skin can easily “become white” in a culture in which blackness must be avoided at all costs.

I must also counter one of the above writers questioning why black activists don’t protest the choice of a dark-skinned black man playing the role of someone who many deem a terrorist by pointing out that, in American film, we’ve seen a number of controversial black figures portrayed on the big screen such Alex Descas as Joseph Mobutu in the 2000 film about Patrice Lumumba, or Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin, or Monique as an abusive mother in the 2009 film Precious, or Denzel Washington as the rogue cop in Training Day. We also know that the iconic Malcolm X was on the wrong side of the law for many years before he became an inspirational figure in black history. I have no problem with seeing black actors portray the bad guys or girls, because, as in any other race, they also exist within black populations. My problem is when the film and television industries choose to ONLY portray blacks in this manner. 

In closing, I fully expect that a racist Brazil probably would reject a dark-skinned black man portraying a lighter-skinned black man, because this same Brazil won’t allow the black child sitting in a history class to believe that Ancient Greek civilization could have possibly been influenced by an ancient land of blacks located in northeastern Africa. In Eurocentric Brazil, the image of whites is never under the threat of being erased, it is never tarnished, even when proven to sometimes not be upstanding, righteous citizens, but blacks, on the other hand, are rarely treated in the same manner. Or do I need to remind you that a black man running in the streets is not seen in the same manner as a white man running in the streets? Or that “a black thing” is always something negative or that it is not the white man that Brazilians believe will make a mess upon his entrance or exit? Seeing Seu Jorge as Marighella simply allows a black man to portray a controversial figure, good or bad, with all of the complexities and contradictions that exist within a category that whites never have to worry about being denied but that blacks must fight daily for such recognition: human being. 

Source: Correio Braziliense, Carta Capital, Exame, Boletim de Liberdade,

About Marques Travae 3221 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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