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African American culture in Brazil

During the 20th century, many countries in Latin America had to go through wars or internal conflicts that shaped their current standing. Whether those conflicts were of external or internal nature, they provided powerful impulse for numerous Latin American film directors, and most of the events that shaped the history of each individual country were ‘reinterpreted’ by film directors. Brazil is no exclusion from this rule. Many Brazilian films are devoted to the country’s development, and many focus on conflicts and social issues that sometimes rearranged the political balance in the country and led to significant changes in society at large.

Antunes Filho's Compasso de Espera is one of such films, which promotes the idea of race equality by means of showing various struggles that the main hero has to go through. Black self awareness in Brazil triggered social conflicts that were a large part of the country’s history. The film director wants to illustrate some of those conflicts through the prism of his characters. Within the scope of this research, we will first describe the overall atmosphere in the country towards black awareness, to be followed by close analysis of the film that pictures struggles related to race inequality.

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Despite continuing dictatorship, the 1970s were a time of increasing black militancy and self-awareness in Brazil. Inspired both by the American black power movement and by the wave of independence movements in the Portuguese colonies of Africa, many activist cultural organizations, such as the Quilombo alternative samba school, Porto Alegre's Senghor Institute, the Black Consciousness and Unity Group, and the dance troupe Olorum Baba Mim were all founded during that decade. A major political organization, the Unified Negro Movement, was founded in 1978.

In Bahia, afoxe (songs/rhythms derived from candomble ritual) groups like Ile Aiye (founded 1974) and Olodum (founded 1979) worked to organize blacks culturally and politically. (Nascimento 1992) It was also in the 1970s that the wave of black pride that had long before washed over the United States began to spread through Rio and other cities. Urban youth, especially in Rio, began to adopt African American emblems of black pride, such as coded handshakes and soul music in a style bubbed bleque pau (black power). The popularity of American soul music inspired "black Rio" in Rio, "black samba" in Sao Paulo, and "black mineiro" in Minas. Afrodiasporic music comes to play a role in the constitution of black identity. Gilberto Freyre himself denounced the movement in 1977 as a North American export that would substitute melancholy and revolt for "happy and fraternal" sambas. (Nascimento 1992)

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It was also during the decade of the 1970s that blacks came into their own within Brazilian Cinema, the culmination of a slow "fade to Afro." The period witnessed not only many features devoted to Afro Brazilian themes but also the emergence of the first Afro Brazilian directors. Although Haroldo Costa, the black impresario and actor who had played the lead in the stage version of Black Orpheus, had made a sophisticated, worldly film, set in an elite Jockey Club and entitled Um Desconhecido Bate a Porta (A Stranger Knocks, but alternately titled Pista de Grama) in 1958, there were no black actors in the film, nor did the film give emphasis to specifically racial issues (Silva 1993). In the 1970s, in contrast, films by black directors did reference black themes.

The former Cinema Novo actor Waldyr Onofre directed the urban comedy As Aventuras Amorosas de um Padeiro (Amorous Adventures of a Baker, 1975), and the by-now-familiar Antonio Sampaio (Pitanga) made his Na Boca do Mundo ( In the Mouth of the World, 1977). In Porto Alegre, meanwhile, Odilon Lopes directed and acted in Um E Pouco, Dois E Bom ( One Is Few, Two Is Great, 1977). And in the following year, the Nigerian director Ola Balogun participated in the first Brazilian Nigerian coproduction, A Deusa Negra ( The Black Goddess, 1978). (Nascimento 1992)

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The 1970s films reveal a dramatic transformation in the attitude of Euro Brazilian directors toward Afro Brazilian culture. Whereas 1960s Cinema Novo films sometimes focused on blacks without highlighting Afro Brazilian culture, many 1970s films make that culture the source of all that is most vital in Brazilian life. While the 1960s films saw Afro Brazilian culture through the grid of "alienation" the 1970s films see it in a spirit of anthropological enthusiasm. (Silva 1993) Although some umbandistas try to de-Africanize the religion, others try to re-Africanize it. Umbanda cosmology has recently incorporated Zumbi as spiritual mentor for the pretos velhos (literally, "old black men") and some foresee a similar incorporation for Anastacia, the popular black female figure traditionally credited with putting an end to slavery. (Silva 1993)

Afro Brazilian themes also come to the forefront in the 1970s. If many Brazilian films from the 1960s make a subtle, indirect critique of racism, Antunes Filho's Compasso de Espera (Marking Time; made 1971, released 1973) made a frontal assault by inventorying the racist features of Brazilian society in a brutally direct fashion. The film's courage was "rewarded" by a two-year delay in exhibition, doubtless a consequence of the dictatorship's anxiety about issues of race. Some exhibitors refused the film with the alibi that its black-andwhite format was obsolete, somewhat ironic given the film's black-white theme and given that the very same exhibitors were then showing contemporary American black-and-white films like The Last Picture Show (1971). The concurrent rise to stardom of one of the film's actresses (Renee de Vilmond) probably nudged the distributors into finally screening the film.

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The delaying of Compasso de Espera's release was just one of many signs of nervousness about race during the dictatorship. The authorities harassed the "black soul" movement, which drew inspiration from the black political and cultural movements in the United States. Journalist Sergio Augusto reports that journalists were forbidden to use the word "black" in a racial sense because of fears of a black power movement in Brazil. (Silva 1993) Musician Dom Salvador and his all-black musical group "Abolition" were reportedly pressured by police agents to include white musicians, an "obligatory integration" perhaps possible only in Brazil. (Silva 1993)

Government censors also scissored a long black power speech from Luiz Rosemberg Filho's underground film America do Sexo (The America of Sex, 1970) and in 1975 banned Brazilian television from showing Awakening from a Dream, an East German documentary about the worldwide impact of the book Quarto do Despejo (Child of the Dark), Carolina Mario de Jesus's widely translated best-seller about life in the favelas. (Silva 1993) In 1978, the government objected to a planned cultural festival aimed at promoting links between Afro Brazilian and African American artists and intellectuals. And a questionnaire distributed by the Federal Police Division of Censorship of Public Diversions as a guideline for censors includes the following questions: "Does the film deal with racial problems? With racial discrimination in Brazil? With American Black Power? With problems outside of Brazil that could have a hidden or subliminal connotation in Brazil?" Even rightwing censors, it appears, can be adept at "allegorical readings." (Silva 1993)

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Compasso de Espera's director, Antunes Filho, is a prominent Sao Paulo theater director, famous for his award-winning staging of plays such as Peer Gynt and Richard III and whose stage version of Macunaima was also widely praised when it toured the United States in 1979. Filho is known for visual flair, dramaturgical competence, and a quasi-academic perfectionism. His film is set in Sao Paulo, the cosmopolitan megalopolis whose industrialization led to the tentative beginnings of a black middle class, and the base for the Frente Negra in the late 1930s. Filho's mise-en-scene highlights the abstract modernity of the Sao Paulo setting, a relatively unexplored decor within Brazilian cinema, both to reproduce the protagonist's world and to convey the city's multiethnic cosmopolitanism. Here there is little trace of favela or candomble, but rather steel-and-glass architecture, pop posters, deluxe apartments, and the impersonal simulacra of consumer culture. (Johnson 1997)

Compasso de Espera focuses on a black poet and advertising agent named Jorge de Oliveira (played by Zózimo Bulbul, who also collaborated on the script). Jorge publishes books of poetry - Compasso de Espera is the title of one of his collections - with the help of his sponsor, a childless white millionaire (an allusion to the Brazilian institution of the padrinho, the patron "godfather"). The impeccably dressed, dignified, articulate Jorge at first glance resembles a number of Sidney Poitier characters, but he lacks the moral stature of the Poitier persona. (Johnson 1997)

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Romantically involved with an older white woman (Emma), Jorge feels sorry for her, but also resents his financial dependence on her. (Jorge's professional prestige is "traded," as it were, for Emma's real wealth and for the cultural capital of her whiteness.) Emma's relatives suggest that the couple not appear too much in public, so as to avoid "talk." Jorge's subsequent infatuation with the upper-class Cristina (Renee de Vilmond) leads to confrontations first with Emma and then with Cristina's family. When Cristina's parents encounter the couple in a restaurant, the mother sneeringly tells her daughter: "I never thought you would stoop so low." (Johnson 1997)

Later, the couple is harassed by rednecks who seem more imported from a Stanley Kramer film about the American South than authentic in Brazilian terms. He is also flirted with by a brazen blond, in a scene reminiscent of the film version of (then) Leroi Jones The Dutchman (1966). (Johnson 1997) When he rejects the blond's advances, she shrieks at him, and Jorge realizes that he has been a sex object for white women. He decides to have nothing to do with white people, but when he visits his own family in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, they too reject him as a social-climbing snob and a traitor to his race. In a final sequence, he walks alone in a working-class neighborhood, where blacks assume he must be a musician, since "only musicians dress like that." (Johnson 1997)

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Successful but dependent on white benevolence, Jorge is internally rent by the contradictory roles he is called upon to play. A partisan of Martin Luther King -- style nonviolence, Jorge is pressured from the left by his militant separatist friend Assis ( Antonio Pitanga). To Assis's Rap Brownish "Burn Baby Bum!" Jorge answers, in English, "Build Baby Build." (Johnson 1997) In any case, Jorge's attempt to be at once distinguished author, defender of black rights, devoted family member, and dedicated lover to two white women ultimately exacts a terrible existential toll.

His social climb is more a pseudoascension than a real liberation. The partisan of "passive resistance," he is, unlike Martin Luther King, often merely passive. The word desculpe (excuse me) is frequently on his lips. When the rednecks attack him, Cristina fights back more than he does. A fledgling cultural amphibian, he doesn't negotiate either world very well; full of understanding for everyone, he has too little for himself. Jorge illustrates the thesis of sociologist Florestan Fernandes (on whose work the film is partially based) about the black middle class in Brazil, a thesis reminiscent of Franklin Frazier's work concerning the American black middle class: that black-middle-class adhesion to an individualistic, competitive, and moralistic ethos, combined with a fascination with the external signs of a high living standard, lead to a flight from identification with the masses of black people. (Johnson 1997) Jorge's lack of involvement with black women, furthermore, reproduces a typical syndrome within Brazilian cinema, including within films made by black Brazilians.

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Compasso de Espera exposes the myriad forms of Brazilian racism, from condescending gestures to acts of outright discrimination and even physical violence. Jorge is the object of crude racial humor - a consistent source of irritation for Brazilian blacks - as when a control booth technician suggests substituting a close-up of Jorge's face for the usual "fade to black." (Johnson 1997) Those who discriminate invariably deny any racist intent, insisting that unspecified "others" would object.

Often the designated discriminators are themselves people of color. Afraid to lose his job, a mulatto receptionist reluctantly turns Jorge away from a hotel, precisely the kind of incident often reported in Brazilian newspapers as a violation of the Afonso Arinos law against racial discrimination. Jorge himself cites Millor Fernandes's ironic dictum that "there is no racism in Brazil because black people know their place." (Johnson 1997) The film mocks a compendium of racist clichés uttered by "well-meaning" white Brazilians: that the problem isn't racial but social, that the issue is not one of race but of class, that the success of black celebrities like Pele proves the absence of discrimination, that "sleeping together" signifies absence of prejudice. One executive offers as proof of tolerance the fact of having a "fantastic" black mistress. (Johnson 1997)











In his advertising work, Jorge designs ads that project whiteness as aesthetic ideal (a real-life tendency easily confirmed by a quick perusal of Brazilian magazine and TV commercials). Even the "charitable" institution of the padrinho-protector can be traced to the period of slavery, when the frequency of white-black sexual involvements (sometimes involving coercion) led well off whites to adopt and protect their "illegitimate" miscegenated offspring and even at times to purchase their freedom. Such mechanisms are typical of societies in which power is distributed along racial lines, and Roger Bastide cites apadrinhamento as an institution meant to smooth over racial tensions, a way of knitting the two communities together both materially and affectively. (Johnson 1997) The institution can provide a kind of material "safety net" during hard times, but blacks ultimately cannot be free, the film implicitly suggests, as long as they are dependent on white "charity" and patron-client relationships that impede black solidarity.

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Compasso de Espera was rightly criticized for focusing on a highly unrepresentative character, a Brazilian equivalent to American TV's "Julia" or "Cosby." (Johnson 1997) Living in a luxurious apartment, sipping imported whiskey at cocktail parties, Jorge represents an infinitesimal minority of black Brazilians. In this sense, he is less representative of blacks than of the anguished artist-intellectuals of a particularly repressive period in Brazilian history. Jorge becomes an allegorical exemplar of the passivity and frustration of intellectuals in general. Stylistically, Compasso de Espera is a highly Europeanized and Americanized film.

The parties recall La Dolce Vita; the lighting recalls film noir; the hortatory tone recalls Stanley Kramer. (Johnson 1997) In short, the film does not take advantage of the decolonizing achievements of Cinema Novo. The soundtrack mixes abstract percussion, Erik Satie, and Blood, Sweat and Tears, completely ignoring not only African American music but also the Afro Brazilian musical presence in Sao Paulo, with its samba schools and its avant-garde performers. In short, the film never intimates the existence of a cultural alternative to the alienated white world in which Jorge is immersed. At the same time, the film's achievement is its descriptive anatomy of Brazilian racism. The film's events could as easily have taken place in New York as in Sao Paulo: perhaps the achievement of the film is to show that the two realities are not, ultimately, so far apart.

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