Denying Brazil (Review)

Denying Brazil (Review)

African Film Festival: More than just a festival
Essays & Articles

John D. H. Downing, Professor Emeritus of International Communication
Southern Illinois University

The documentary, Denying Brazil, is a plain-speaking and fascinating unmasking of the white racism endemic in Brazilian television’s most popular genre, which in the USA we would call the soap opera, but which throughout Latin America is known as the telenovela.
The telenovela is more than a soap opera. It has a centrality in everyday life in much of Latin America way beyond its cousin in the USA. At times a series will comment very directly on current events, rather like the special “West Wing” episode produced after 9/11. People are glued to the set across social classes, the audience includes lots of men as well as women — and we’re talking prime time, not daytime. Telenovelas are not only amazingly prominent, but also have a format different to soap operas. Soaps usually run once a week and often for years on end, whereas telenovelas run every weekday night for some months and then come to a final climax.

The genre is now worldwide. Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, in particular, but also other Latin American countries even export their telenovelas quite successfully around the world. Exclusive US rights to the plot-concept of Colombia’s hugely popular “Ugly Betty (Betty La Fea)” were not long ago sold for serious money. In other words, when we’re talking telenovelas, we’re talking about something ultra high profile.

So how they portray— or don’t— people of color is a really big deal in our multi-colored hemisphere. There have been some hard-hitting documentaries on racism in US media, such as the late Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, and Deborah Gee’s Slaying The Dragon. In Denying Brazil Brazilian director Joel Zito Araújo zeroes in on the very same issue: persistent white racism in media, with Brazilian telenovelas — usually acknowledged as the best there are in Latin America — in close-up…

…To properly grasp the documentary’s message, one needs to take a step back and understand the way race works in Brazil and many Latin American nations. In the USA for most purposes, there is a binary code — one is either black or white, however light-skinned. In much of Latin America, however, the code that dominates is one which puts value on the lightness of skin color, the nearness to being white.
This code obviously still prizes being white as the index of both beauty and intelligence, and disfavors being black as signifying unattractiveness and stupidity, but there is no fixed In-Out as there is in the USA. There is instead a microscopically detailed ladder of racial acceptability, where the more you can “whiten” yourself the better things get for you. It is referred to as branqueamento in Portuguese, blanqueamiento in Spanish and can be translated to whitening in English.
Over the past hundred years this different system has permitted many Latin American commentators to claim that racism is peculiar to the USA, and that Brazil, for instance, is a “racial democracy” or that Venezuela is a “coffee-colored” country where lots of folk are at least a little mixed in origin, so being lack doesn’t matter. Denying Brazil rips the mask off this comforting myth…

Read the entire review here.

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