Note from BW of Brazil: The ongoing debate over black representation on Brazilian airwaves has only intensified since mid-September with the debut, and two month run of the current Globo TV series Sexo e as negas. The debate has been featured on various posts on this blog and offers an interesting dynamic of comparison and contrast with two current running American TV series featuring black women, Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder. These two series, besides starring black women in lead roles (Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, respectively), are also created and written by a black woman, Shonda Rhimes. The article below touches upon the question of persons of African descent having power and control over as well as influence on the images of persons from this population in each country. Although the article touches upon important issues, as we will show later on, it also misses a few very important key points.
And the black side of the story?
Absence of black authors reflects the low diversity of Brazilian TV and explains controversy as Sexo e as negas
By Daniel Oliveira
A few months ago, filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo, like many of us, added a stranger on Facebook. It was an American who had lived in Brazil and liked the posts about racial diversity of the filmmaker responsible for the book and the documentary A Negação do Brasil (Denying Brazil) the greatest study on black representation on Brazilian TV. The two agreed to meet when Araújo was the US, which took place last Thursday in Los Angeles.
“To my surprise, he is director of a Disney program of recruiting and developing talent among minorities such as blacks, Latinos and Asians, to ensure diversity of writers, directors and producers in the studio,” says the filmmaker. The shock came not only from his friend working in this, but that in a country where blacks are not more than 14% of the population, this concern exists.
The results of affirmative action are so undeniable. The writer and creator of the most successful series in the US today is the black woman Shonda Rhimes. Since September on ABC (Disney), Thursday nights – in which commercials are more expensive and, therefore, is the principal of the week – are dominated by three serials produced by her. Two, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, star two black actresses, Kerry Washington and Viola Davis. The other, Grey’s Anatomy, has been recognized for years as the most diverse cast of American TV, with Asian, Black and Latino actors. Grey’s is the most watched drama in the US. How to Get Away With Murder is the most watched new series of the year. The second is the comedy Black-ish about a black family.
Meanwhile, Brazilian television has not one black writer of novelas (soap operas). Much has been said about the near absence of non-white actors and actresses in novelas, or the low diversity of casts. But little is discussed about the root of this bleaching: the absence of black writers and directors in positions of real creative control of these productions. “Blacks are still more represented than they speak for themselves on TV. What you see is the story of blacks told by whites,” says researcher and professor of communication at the Federal University of Pampa (Unipampa) Wesley Grijó.
The most recent example is the controversy surrounding the show Sexo e as negas, created by Miguel Falabella. For Joel Zito Araújo, it’s even positive that a white man is interested in the universe of black women. The problem is much more underneath. “Where is the concern of Brazil’s largest broadcaster (Globo) in incorporating black directors, authors or consultants in production as well? The fact that they didn’t even think about it is proof of the evil of this false idea of racial democracy, that there is no racism here,” he criticizes.
According to the filmmaker, even the recent miniseries Subúrbia, written by Paulo Lins (author of Cidade de Deus – City of God) is another symptom of this lack of consciousness. “The invitation was from director Luiz Fernando Carvalho, and not the broadcaster,” he adds. The researcher Mariza Fernandes dos Santos, who studies the lack of academic material written by blacks available for cotistas (quota students) on their dissertations at Instituto Federal de Goiás (IFG), also doesn’t think that it’s obligatory to be black to create complex, multi-dimensional black characters. “But since the white man has lived an experience of otherness, opens himself up to what it is in fact to be a black woman from the periphery, not the stereotype. And yet, I don’t think this is desirable, when we have many qualified black women to do this,” she argues.
Wesley Grijó, who expanded on the research of the book of Joel Zito for novelas of the 2000s in a recent article, the necessity is to seek greater diversity of discourses and versions. “What percentage of the population are descendants of Italians? And how many novelas (are there) about Italian immigrants have ever been made? On the other hand, how does the white man that doesn’t know what prejudice is going to talk about it?” asks the professor. The authenticity of someone speaking from their own point of view is unquestionable. Hundreds of movies have been made about slavery. When one was written and directed by blacks, 12 Anos de Escravidão (12 Years a Slave), it was something so unique that it won the Oscar.
For researchers, however, telling stories with the most authentic and complex black characters also imply disassociating the characters from traumas of racism, prejudice, criminality and social backwardness. Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, protagonists of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, are successful, complex and full of women’s problems, whose fact of being black women is just one of the many facets of their personalities. “The novelas today have ‘black families’. They’re not rich, poor, happy or dysfunctional families. They’re ‘black’ families. It’s a type,” reflects Joel.
Grijó adds another example with the recent novela Lado a Lado. For him, despite bringing black protagonists and antagonists, “it was very didactic and didn’t operate as a serial.” For the professor, a breakthrough that the production brought, however, was characters with names and surnames. “In my research, I discovered that blacks in the novela are not associated with a family name. Who remembers the surname of Taís Araújo’s Helena (character) on Viver a Vida? Her husband had one and hers was never mentioned,” he reveals. In the US, the Pope of Olivia in Scandal has become a verb/slang for “resolving difficult problems”. Little details that make all the difference.
Note from BW of Brazil: As mentioned previously, this article brings about a topic that has been a mainstay on this blog from the very beginning: the lack of Afro-Brazilian representation in the media. But this article misses a few things that are also important to consider when making this comparison between the situation of African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians in television.
First, I must bring to the fore that the series Scandal, while it has been critically-acclaimed and a huge hit among American viewers, is not without its share of problems. For example, although the character played Kerry Washington is presented as wielding power, which many find to be a commendable representation for black women (1), the debate in many African-American circles about other facets of the Olivia Pope character reveals that this is not a universally accepted opinion. The Pope character is a high-profile Washington DC-based crisis manager who runs her own firm. In the series, Pope is involved in an on-going sexual affair with the white, married President of United States, which reminds many of the sexual exploitation of black women by white men during the slavery era. For some, the relationship is reminiscent of the scandalous sexual relationship between 19th century American President Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings (2). Veteran advertising industry veteran Tom Burrell, for example, had this to say about the character:
“I’ve got major problems with Scandal. It comes dressed up and masqueraded as something new, but Scandal is basically a continuing perpetuation of the stereotype of a black woman whose libido and sexual urges are so pronounced that even with an education and a great job, and all these other things, she can’t control herself. So, she’s basically a reincarnation of Bess from Porgy and Bess; she’s the female in Monster’s Ball; she’s the sexual predator and aggressor. It basically plays into the whole sexual stereotype of black women that’s been around from the very beginning, and that basically gives permission for them to be sexually exploited….The intelligence and professionalism let us go in under this pretext. But the message that is really being delivered is that no matter how much education you get and how much power you get, you’ve still got that “around the way girl” in you. It’s basically saying that black women are innately, inherently, hot to trot. He doesn’t seduce her. She seduces him.”
As such, here we have a popular TV series starring and written by African-American women. If the question here is authentic representations of black women by black women, I would ask, considering the relationship between Pope and the President in the series, Fitzgerald Grant, would the situation portraying this black woman have been any different had the writer been a white man? In our sex-obsessed societies, I wonder how successful this series would be without the salacious addition of the relationship between the white president of the US and arguably the most powerful man in the world and his black crisis manager. This facet of the Pope character, that was based on a real-life black female crisis manager that worked in the White House, Judy Smith, makes me wonder if this relationship was added to spice up the story line to attract more viewers given society’s interest or even obsession with scandals, particularly of a sexual nature (3).
In a previous post, BW of Brazil approached the development and success of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in the US, which was created and formerly owned by African-American billionaire Bob Johnson. Yes, BET has been hugely successful and catapulted Johnson into his status as one of America’s first black billionaires before he eventually sold the company. Although the existence of a black television station that prominently featured African-American performers was a great accomplishment and initially a source of great pride for African-Americans, its content would prove that it was just as willing and able to present old and new stereotypes of the black population as any white-owned company. As such, the question would be, does black control and/or ownership of media products lead to more honest, authentic representations of black people? Well, not necessarily. In the end, it appears that if black people want to “get in the game” in front of as well as behind the scenes, they must be willing to “play the game” and give audiences what they want, what the market demands or do what is necessary to ensure success regardless of the sacrifices, in this case, integrity and the maintenance of long-held stereotypes.
This subject reminds me of a short exchange I had with a Rio de Janeiro-based writer last year around this same time, November, the Month of Black Consciousness. The black writer of very successful movie in Brazil several years ago revealed that he was working on the development of another Globo TV project that would feature a primarily Afro-Brazilian cast. He then told me that the series would be based in the slavery era. Although I could not judge a series that has yet to debut (in the same manner as what happened with the announcement of Sexo e as negas), I wondered and asked him, why must there be another series based in the slavery era (4)? The writer shrugged his shoulders and scurried away as if to say, “hey, I do what I gotta do.”
The point here is that although it would be great to see more talented black people who have control over the representations of black people on the big and small screen, it is not necessarily the answer to these aspirations. For, whether it is a black writer or a white writer, if images pandering to long-held stereotypes are presented to mass audiences, the result and the paradigm remain the same.
1. In Sexo e as negas, in contrast, all four black female characters are of lower class origin. This comparison speaks to yet another difference between Brazilian and American societies. In the US, a country that is perceived and is fact a very racist country, African-Americans can be seen in prominent roles on television and in advertising in ways that are still not accepted in Brazil. See more of this comparison here and here.
2. Interestingly, the Pope character herself reveals that she feels somewhat this way about the relationship as well in one scene in series. See here on You Tube.
3. Would this also be the case of Sexo e as negas which is loaded with sex scenes, particularly featuring the Soraia character (photo above) who seems to have a different sexual partner in every episode.
4. Brazil has a long history of novelas set in the slavery era. Moreninha (1975) Escrava Isaura (1976), Sinhá Moça (1986), Xica da Silva (1996), A Padroeira (2001) Lado a Lado (2012) are just a few that come to mind. Novelas set in slavery are so common in fact that filmmaker and critic Joel Zito Araújo in his study on 35 years of Brazilian novelas broke down percentages of Afro-Brazilian characters in terms of novelas based in the slavery and post-slavery era.