- Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism by Richard A. Gordon
Cinema offers us a window into the soul of a nation—glimpses of how a people think about themselves and their identities. Richard Gordon's new book looks closely at five films dealing with Brazilian slavery, produced from the mid 1970s to the early 2000s. He seeks "to understand better how the films invite individuals to rethink the collection of attributes they assign to the national category of their social identities" (4).
As with so many versions of Brazilian national identity, these films emphasize cultural syncretism, especially of European and African elements. Although Gordon believes that syncretistic exchanges support ethnic and racial inclusiveness, their particular innovation is to promote an Afrocentric view of national identity. The vision of Brazilianness in the films at times shares features of both Gilberto Freyre's version of cultural syncretism and the radically distinct vision of the black activist, Abdias do Nascimento. These films advance proposals that grapple with race and ethnicity, and Gordon carefully dissects these in the book's chapters. However, he makes clear from the outset that his analysis will not include claims about the influence the films actually exercise over audiences.
Gordon finds that five elements in the films "interact so as to encourage viewers to rethink their social identities." In varying ways, the five films offer "clues" that connect past and present; encourage viewers to see themselves as part of the nation; cast the film's "protagonist as a national metaphor and a prototype for the national population"; suggest that the viewer identify with the protagonist, who ends up being what Gordon calls a "cinematic self;" and strategically shape "this proxy for the nation and national population" (8). He sees in all these films a "sort of Afrocentric, syncretic, racially inclusive" understanding of Brazilianness (11).
After a brief introduction setting out his argument and theoretical orientation, Gordon presents five chapters, one for each of the key films, but roughly in reverse chronological order: O Aleijadinho: paixão, glória e suplício (2000, director Geraldo Santos Pereira), Cafundó (2005, Paulo Betti and Clóvis Bueno), Quilombo (1984, Carlos Diegues), Chico Rei (1985, Walter Lima Júnior), and Xica da Silva (1976, Carlos Diegues). In these films, the protagonist serves as a cinematic self, becoming a guide for the viewer to "conceive of the national category of their social identities" (30). Aleijadinho models an Afrocentric self-concept that privileges syncretism and multiculturalism. The same is true of the pastor João de Camargo in Cafundó, but this film redefines "national identity in the context of religious identity" (66). Unlike Aleijadinho, Camargo's congregation, more than the protagonist pastor himself, is the national metaphor.
Similarly, the population of the Palmares quilombo serves as the proto-national Brazilian community in Quilombo. Chico Rei, on the other hand, does not offer a "single, cohesive revision of Brazilianness for viewers"; rather, it presents two distinct options [End Page 435] that are not reconciled (158). The film directly challenges the "government-sanctioned perpetuation of a Freyrean version of Brazilian identity" and racial democracy (159). Rather than the harmonic blending of races, a la Freyre, this film offers a syncretism that emphasizes cooperation among distinct social groups.
Gordon concludes the book with a chapter on the oldest of the films, Xica da Silva, demonstrating how this box-office hit inaugurated the trends he sees in all five productions, and how it likely influenced later ones. The "frayed and multivalent portrait of Xica" offers a less forceful vision of national identity than the other films that came later (190). Nevertheless, its Afrocentric, syncretic, and multicultural version of national identity has endured and also appears in the other four films, made across three decades.
Gordon's book is a fascinating look at the five films and the ways in which they offer Brazilian audiences revisionist views of slavery, race, and national identity. He draws heavily on the work of social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner, and their...