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Black Cinema in Brazil: a Long and Hard Road

In a country where language, music, food, dance, spirituality, and culture are filled with all things Africa, one would imagine that Black filmmakers and actors would dominate the movie and TV scene in Brazil.

Think again.

Very early on, starting with the historical night of July 8, 1896, when the elite of Rio de Janeiro was treated to a screening of eight shorts with scenes from European cities, movies became essential to Brazilian audiences and creatives. A year later, Brazil’s first filmmakers would exhibit their own pieces, with shorts rolls of city life, children dancing, fishermen coming back from the sea.

By 1908, Rio de Janeiro – then the country’s capital city – had 20 movie theaters, showing silent films not very different from the ones currently in Europe and the United States.  In 1915, after the First War, all major Brazilian cities had an abundance of movie theaters, and American businesses began investing in new circuits of exhibition and pushing their made-in-USA product. By 1930, local films were booming, even with constant friction with foreign competition.

With Europe and the US focused on the Second World War, Brazilian cinema owned the best part of its market. No Black actors were seen except – occasionally – in the background, especially for scenes of hard labor, prison, or folk dances. Black directors? Not even a vague possibility. The racial and social division that would dominate for many decades was deeply entrenched.


And there was Sebastião Bernardes de Souza Prata, aka Grande Otelo – the first Black actor to become more than a lead actor: a real star. Born in 1915 in a poor family dominated by alcoholism and mental illness, Prata ran away when he was 15 and joined a traveling circus – it would be his drama training, and soon he would join a series of theater companies, including the famous Companhia Negra de Revistas, the Black Comedy Company, led by master composer Pixinguinha, one of Brazil’s most important names in Brazilian music. Short, not exactly handsome, but capable of moving from comedy to drama, Grande Otelo was a natural in the movie boom of the 40s and 50s when the “chanchada” – a very Brazilian subgenre that was partly broad comedy, partly musical – dominated the screens. He became one of Brazil’s major stars, filling theaters easily, and finally breaking the whiteness of Brazilian cinema.

It would take almost another decade for Black actors to be seen in Brazilian films, on stages, and on TV screens. The gamechanger came in the 50s, when the recently created Black Experimental Theater group, trained a whole generation of Black actresses and actors. The late 50s and early 60s were golden years of change, creativity and daring – it was the era of the brand new bossa nova and its visual brother, Cinema Novo, the New Cinema.

The Cinema Novo generation broke, in part, the whiteness of Brazilian screens. Filmmakers like Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Arnaldo Jabor, Roberto Farias, Paulo César Sarraceni, Gustavo Dahl, Domingos de Oliveira, Ruy Guerra – true, all white – changed the focus of Brazilian cinema, embracing themes of poverty, class tension, racism and oppression. 



Grande Otelo was a star and many of the Cinema Novo generation showed his ample talent in roles as diverse as a surreal baby in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s bizarre Macunaíma, and as one of the bandits of Roberto Farias’ thrilling Assault on the Pay Train. But he no longer was alone – from the Black Experimental Theater came two generations of brilliant Black actors filling the screens with their talent: Antonio Pitanga, Glauber Rocha’s go-to lead man; Ruth de Souza, present in dozens of films; the eclectic Haroldo Costa, and many more.

True, many roles were of criminals, maids, chauffeurs, street vendors – but the pushback had begun, going on even during the 21 years of extreme-right dictatorship that, from 1964 to 1985, all but froze all creative arts.

In post-dictatorship, the presence of Black actors in movies and TV – at this point, the latter being the country’s leading platform – was a given. The new generation of directors was still white, but the themes of the Cinema Novo were embraced and updated, making Black talent more common and more recognized, in films such as City of God and Bacurau.

The next step would be to put Black talent behind the camera. Collectives created in slums –favelas- and isolated communities were now one of the key forces to change the local history. When well-known Black actors took the lead in becoming directors – Antonio Pitanga; his daughter, Camila Pitanga; star actors Lázaro Ramos and Zózimo Bulbul – major changes came finally into being.

“Brazilian cinema likes Black culture but doesn’t seem interested in the real struggle of Black people,” said pioneer filmmaker Joel Zito to Continente magazine. Zito learned filming on his own and specialized in documentaries, first in video, then in digital. From self-education, NGOs and public colleges, a new generation of Black creatives, many of them women, is showing its points of view (thanks in great part to the dissemination of streaming platforms in Brazil): Vivane Ferreira, Jeferson De, Sabrina Fidalgo, Camila de Moraes, Renata Martins, Juliana Vicente, Diego Paulino, Yasmin Thayná and many more.

So finally, we would get the real story of a country built on its Black people and their talent and strength.