Turning white: Why do they whiten blacks in movies, soap operas, advertisements and in history?

1976 film 'Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands' (left top), the 2008 theater adaptation and the cover of an edition of the book by Jorge Amado

dona - livro - filme

Note from BW of Brazil: You’ve seen it before…Think about it. When was the last time you saw a film, TV series or advertisement that featured a white actor/actress or a much lighter-skinned black actor/actress playing the role of a darker-skinned black personality? I still remember the outrage at the casting of actress Zoe Saldana in the film role about African-American singer/activist Nina Simone. Besides the fact that Saldana, of Dominican heritage, weaves in and out of a black identity depending on what direction the wind blowing, she is also several shades lighter-skinned that the deep chocolate-skinned Simone.

Well, guess what…it doesn’t just happen in the United States. In Brazil, we also have a number of examples of white actors/actresses and white images replacing those that should have been represented as black or at least darker-skinned. I still remember shaking my head in discovering the fact that actress Sônia Braga had her skin artificially darkened to play the role of Gabriela in the 1975 novela (soap opera) of the same name when a darker-skinned actress, Vera Manhães, was all set to play the part. Then there’s the whitening of paintings of Afro-Brazilian historical figures. I am posting today’s 2015 piece from my archives because of yet another current controversy that has made headlines of late. More on that in the next post…For now, on with the whitewashing!

dona - livro - filme
1976 film ‘Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands’ (left top), the 2008 theater adaptation and the cover of an edition of the book by Jorge Amado

Turning white: why do they whiten blacks in movies, soap operas, advertisements and in history?

Characters from film, commercials, soap operas and even sacred symbols: have you noticed that (almost) everyone has fair skin and straight hair?

By Victor Villarpando

Think of a warm, welcoming African mother, that one who loves abundance, who has breastfed a lot of children. Have you thought of her? Now tell me if she looks more like the singer Virgínia Rodrigues, who played the Beyoncé da Bahia character in the movie Ó Paí Ó, or actress Paolla Oliveira, the villain Melissa from the novela (soap opera) Além do Tempo on Globo/TV Bahia.

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Singer Virgínia Rodrigues – Actress Paolla Oliveira

The artisans who make the Iemanjá statues of Mercado Modelo are left with the second option. This is worth remembering, portraying the mother of a large part of the orixás of candomblé, a religion of African matrix. Sellers and consumers also seem to prefer the white version. Last Friday (November 20, 2015), on the Dia da Consciência Negra (Day of Black Consciousness), BAZAR visited all the tourist spot shops.

Mercado Modelo in Salvador, Bahia

Of the 24 who had Iemanjá’s statues in crockery or pottery, seven only had the light-skinned version. Of the 65 types of deity statues found, 39 were white. That is: 60%. The hair, regardless of the skin, was always straight. “The ones that sell the most are the white ones. I’ve been working here for 34 years and that’s how it is. Come here on February 2 you won’t find any,” says Mário César, from Rocha Coelho Gallery.

Iemanjá - B - W
Depictions of the African Goddess Iemanjá; purchase at Mercado Modelo at right 

Sociologist Paula Barreto explains: “The deities become embranquecidas (whitened) as they become popular. It happened also with Jesus Christ, who would never have auburn hair and light eyes being a man from the Middle East at that time,” says she, is a professor at Ufba (Federal University of Bahia), coordinator of the research group A cor da Bahia (the color of Bahia) and the Nzinga Group of Capoeira Angola.


For the researcher and filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo, author of the documentary and the book A Negação do Brasil – O Negro da Telenovela Brasileira (Denying Brazil – The Black of the Brazilian Soap Opera)), this embranquecer negros (whitening blacks) habit arrived here from caravel. “It’s a historical trend. It comes from Portuguese colonization, which tried to erase the blackness of Brazilian society by miscegenation,” says Joel. That is to say: the valorization of the black inheritance is made with the attempt to whiten it. Thus, black characteristics are tied to white features and seen as more positive. “At the national level, we prefer the blue-eyed blonde type, but who have physical characteristics attributed to the Brazilian woman, such as the shapely butt and legs,” explains the filmmaker.

Hence we normally see white Iemanjás statues with straight hair and Jesus Christos (Jesus Christ) with a German face. “There is an attitude of thinking that the black is always the other, the different. That the average Brazilian is white,” Joel points out. Because of this, cinema and television also have no modesty in disguising black figures. And see that we live in a country where 53% of those interviewed by the IBGE census in 2013 described themselves as pretos e pardos (blacks and browns).

But the phenomenon is neither novelty nor exclusiveness of ours. “It’s a problem that is also seen outside of Brazil. The ideal of branquitude (whiteness) is worldwide, and the choices of white actors for characters from different ethnicities reflect this. The film Othello (1965), for example, was starring a white man”, points out the sociologist. It refers to the most famous adaptation of Shakespeare’s book. On the screen, the main character was played by the English actor Laurence Olivier, who had his face painted to look black.


What results in the wide placement of these images? The impact is direct on self-esteem. “There is a lack of recognition of most of the people of Brazil with what is considered desirable,” says the sociologist. “A large contingent of the population made positive contributions to society. It is essential for the welfare and the full exercise of citizenship that there is recognition,” she explains. According to the professor, we tend to value European and North American cultural expressions more. “On the other hand, denying positive quality to African, Afro-Brazilian and indigenous cultures makes us depend on being valued by others to feel good,” says Paula. The damage is for Brazilian culture in general. “We will always be struggling to be mais brancos e loiros (whiter and more blond) and look more like what we are not,” says the sociologist.

There are, however, more and more movements seeking recognition and empowerment. For example, on the 7th, in Salvador, the Marcha do Orgulho Crespo (March of Crespo – kinky/curly hair – Pride) passed through. “There are obvious achievements in the 21st century. Quotas in universities, the defense of quilombola lands … Being black is no longer just a disadvantage and a new generation is the result of these achievements,” says Joel. While things don’t change, look at some cases of whitening of characters pointed out by the interviewees.

Would a deity of African origin even have such a Portuguese face? In most of the Mercado Modelo, yes.

Jesus Christ in the film Jesus de Nazaré (Jesus of Nazareth) (1977)

Would a poor man who lived in the Middle East two thousand years ago look so German?

“Jesus Christ would never have auburn hair and light eyes,” says sociologist Paula Barreto. Apparently, his portrayal by a black actor in the comedy O Auto da Compadecida is far more factual than that of the popular A Paixão de Cristo (The Passion of the Christ, 2004) and Jesus de Nazaré (1977), in the photo.

Beyoncé in the L’Oréal campaign in Elle magazine in the US in 2015

In 2011, the cosmetics brand L’Oréal published, in the US magazine Elle, an advertisement with the singer super pale and blonde. The company denies that it used Photoshop to lighten the diva. In the same year, Caixa Econômica Federal broadcast a whitish version of the writer Machado de Assis in an advertisement.

Photo of the poster of the play ‘Dona Flor’

In Jorge Amado’s book, the protagonist’s skin was described as “acobreada” (coppery) and “morena” (dark/light brown). In the play adapted by Marcelo Farias, the character was played by actresses Carol Castro and Fernanda Paes Leme. “The women of Amado are usually made by white actresses,” says filmmaker Joel Zito.

In the Record TV novela ‘Os Dez Mandamentos’ (The Ten Commandments), the actor Sérgio Marone plays the pharaoh Ramses

Of the 55 actors in the novela in Africa (Egypt), 53 have fair skin. The actor Sérgio Marone, who plays the Pharaoh Ramses, is one of them. But the Record TV network is not the only one. Since 1960, white actresses such as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren have starred in Cleopatra’s films.

Chiquinha Gonzaga (left), played by Regina Duarte (right) and, later, by her daughter, Gabriela Duarte

The black pianist and composer mixed sonorities of the senzala (slave quarters) with the classical world. On TV, she was interpreted by Regina Duarte and Gabriela Duarte. “Brancas (white women) playing Chiquinha Gonzaga shows the whitening of historical figures,” says Joel Zito.

Source: Correio 24 Horas

About Marques Travae 2895 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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