Note from BW of Brazil: The recent controversy over the lack of nominations of black actors and actresses for the Oscar Award ceremony has also been a popular topic within black Brazilian social circles (#OscarsTãoBrancos meaning “Oscars so white”). As most Brazilians would have you believe, Brazil doesn’t have the racial problems that it’s neighbor to the north, the United States, has. But as we have shown repeatedly on this blog, in nearly every area of Brazilian society, Afro-Brazilians are either invisible or extremely under-represented considering their representation in the population, which is now said to be about 53%. No one will deny that media diversity is a serious problem in the United States, but the situation is infinitely worse in Brazil. The fact is, as much as people like to bash the racial history of the US, there is simply no comparison as to which country offers more opportunities to persons of African descent. This latest Oscar drama is a simply another good reason to discuss the situation in Brazil. Let’s take a look at how one writer sees it and we’ll chime in a little later on the topic…
Why no black Brazilian actor will ever boycott Globo TV
By Marcos Sacramento
Since the debut of the first novela (soap opera) of TV Globo in 1965, you can count on the fingers of one hand the productions with black protagonists. On the recent novela I Love Paraisópolis, set in a community where 70% of residents declare themselves black, only six of the 52 actors in the cast had that phenotype.
It only takes a few minutes in front of the TV to realize the distance between the predominant profile in the novelas, with mostly light-skinned characters, and the Brazilian ethnic profile, where more than half of the population declares itself black.
“According to the census conducted by the IBGE in 2010, 50.7% of the country’s population is preto (black) and pardo (brown/mixed). However, in the year 2016, this majority demographic condition is virtually invisible in television productions and in advertisements circulating on TV and in the print media vehicles,” wrote actress Zezé Motta on Facebook, in an outburst at the time of the (recent) death of actor Antonio Pompeu.
According to Motta, the actor of 62 years, with whom she played opposite in the film Quilombo entered into depression due to the lack of job opportunities.
This discrepancy, which paints Brazil as a white country for whoever watches the TV screens, offers ample ammunition for black actors to promote a protest similar to their American colleagues, who intend to boycott the Oscars because of the absence of blacks in Oscar nominations for best actor and actress.
The question is which of them would have the courage to take such a stance. The first obstacle is the shortage of black representatives in television drama and the consequent invisibility, as Zezé Motta cited. A boycott promoted by invisibles is likely to be innocuous.
Another thing that inhibits the promotion of a boycott is the risk of a politicized actor losing job opportunities and falling into the feared ostracism.
In a way, the scarcity of blacks in novelas would be at the same time the subject and the hindrance to a similar demonstration that Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith are pushing.
To further complicate matters, whoever could take advantage of the Oscar controversy to raise debate about racism in Brazilian novelas rather prefers to throw cold water on the discussion.
Rather than reflect on Spike Lee and company, they would prefer to follow the philosophy of Morgan Freeman, for whom the solution to ending racism is to stop talking about it.
That’s what veteran actor Milton Gonçalves did during an interview with Rádio Gaúcha, of the RBS group. For him, the Academy is not racist and if no black was nominated this year it was because none of them made a good movie.
During the relaxed interview of about 23 minutes, hosts made a joke about the way the actor refers to the income that he has, calling it “dinheirinho” (little money).
Speaking of his salary, Gonçalves let it slip that sometimes he acts as a sort of ambassador of Rede Globo.
“Thank God I have a salary interest of Globo, I’ve been there 52 years, I’m not the best salary but I am founder of the company. Sometimes, when there is need to represent the company I am called to do so. And it’s not only in the US, it’s in Korea, Japan, it’s in Italy, Portugal, I’ll go there being part of that group that represents the Globo Television Network,” he said.
As the Algerian Albert Camus wrote, in the end “everything explains itself.”
Note from BW of Brazil: In the piece above, the writer, Marcos Sacramento, is on point on a number of issues. For example, his view about black Brazilian actors never rising up to declare a boycott of the nation’s top network is pretty much a fact. In some ways, the piece above is similar to a controversy that was thoroughly discussed on this blog back in 2014. The issue at the time was a Globo TV series called Sexo e as Negas. The series was vehemently rejected by black women activists who called out the shows producers for its stereotypical depictions of black women. On the other hand, as calls for cancelling of the show became louder and louder, Globo TV called upon some of its black actors to initiate a campaign of support of the program to counteract the protests (see here and here). The show of support for this program by numerous black actors even though it continued a long history of predictable of Afro-Brazilians showed us the vulnerable position that black artists find themselves. Of course no one can prove that Globo twisted the arms of the artists to voice their support of the show, but in an industry where there are already few roles for black actors and actresses, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that this in fact took place behind the scenes. Which makes for an interesting comparison with the situation of black American actors and actresses and the current Oscar dilemma.
Here’s my take on the issue. African-Americans clearly have more clout in the TV and film industry in comparison to their Afro-Brazilian counterparts. In the US, TV programs and films with primarily black casts are nothing new and Brazil simply has no black actor or actress that is in a comparable position in leading films roles on par with the likes of a Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Samuel L. Jackson. The Brazilian film industry as a whole only draws a tiny fraction of the global film market that the American industry attracts. But even with African-Americans having a clear advantage in terms of film and TV projects, both in front of and behind the camera, black Americans still don’t have the clout needed for independence or the ability to distribute their own films. Which is why a boycott of the Oscars is not a viable option. The aforementioned top black leading actors and box office attractions are all very well-paid and have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in their careers. But without the powerful studios, directors and producers, nearly none of which are black, they remain at the mercy of those in power. For this reason, in my view, the calls of Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee for a boycott of the Oscars is simply a bluff. A fake. Such an act could possibly lead to Jada’s husband Will and Lee basically black-listed from ever working again on any project in which major funding or distribution is necessary. And I simply don’t see either of them taking such a risk.
Let’s rewind the clock two decades to the period in which Lee was filming the epic about the life of human rights icon Malcolm X. At a crucial point in the recording of the film, Lee had run out of funds and Warner Bros. told him they wouldn’t invest any more money into the project. Lee was nearly forced to shut down production of the film until some of his high-powered black celebrity friends came to his rescue. Without the financial contributions of Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Michael Jordan, Prince and Janet Jackson, the film Malcolm X may have never seen the light of day. On the flip side of the issue, the pooling of resources to complete such an important film is a model that all minority heavy weights should be using anyway. As has been repeated on this blog time and again, with independence, black artists, businessmen and women, etc. wouldn’t have the need to denounce the discriminatory actions of powerful non-blacks. Doing for self, in other words, “for us by us” as was the slogan of the popular clothing brand FUBU, completely cuts out the necessity of begging or denouncing, which, in the current state of black disunity, is really all a boycott surmounts to.
Let us remember that back in November, Lee, who has never taken home an Oscar for his body of work, was given an Honorary Oscar, which one would assume he has no plans of returning because of this latest controversy. As such, in a way, Lee is in the same position that one of the characters in his 1999 film Bamboozled stated: “working hard on the master’s plantation”. Being a fan of Lee’s work, this should not be taken as any sort of diss but rather a statement of a fact. The film industry, the music industry and the media in general has long long shown its propensity for exploiting certain aspects of black culture and especially the black dollar. And as long as black movie goers and music fans continue to support these industries with their dollars, these very industries will continue with business as usual, with or without the support of its disgruntled artists.
As far as Gonçalves or any other Afro-Brazilian actor working at Rede Globo is concerned, don’t expect any of them to be “rocking the boat” any time soon. The position of Afro-Brazilians is even more precarious than that of African-Americans. There simply isn’t a medium for their work….yet. They are already vastly under-represented in front of the camera and direction behind the camera is almost non-existent. Several years ago, Gonçalves participated in the film As Filhas do Vento by director Joel Zito Araújo. Not only was the film deemed a “ghetto” because of its 90% black cast, it got hardly any exposure or distribution. As such, the problem is not a lack of talent. Over the years, a number of Afro-Brazilian directors have directed quality features worthy of recognition. That list includes the aforementioned Araújo, whose first documentary A Negação do Brasil – O Negro nas Telenovelas critiqued the invisibility and stereotyping of Afro-Brazilians in Brazil’s telenovelas (soap operas), Waldir Onofre, André Novais Oliveira, Gabriel Martins and Jeferson De, director of the 2010 film Bróder. And of course we have seen in recent years the rise of new black filmmakers in the short film genre lead by black women, but as of now, their work is still treated as a sort of underground market. The problem in Brazil for Afro-Brazilian filmmakers isn’t a lack of talent but rather a lack of opportunity. And as such, as one popular meme showed a few years ago, many black actors continue sucking on the breasts of the Globo TV cash cow, and with no viable alternative option (Brazil’s other networks use pretty much the same media playbook in relation to black Brazilians), they will continue to do as they’re told without too much protest. After all, in a plantation format, life can be a little (or even a lot) better in the master’s house rather than out in the field!