Sunday, May 8, 2011

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part II

It is time to look at Orfeu Negro with a new set of eyes. I want to defend it, of course. It moved me and it has a place in my heart. But part of understanding racism is admitting that you see it, even in places you want to keep innocent of it: in your favorite books, in your family, in your own privileged life.

The film is often called ground-breaking and ahead of its time for employing an all-black cast. The story centers on Orfeu, his fiancée Mira, his neighbor Serafina and her cousin Euridice. They live on a favela high above the city, and are removed from it in every way. An airplane passes over the favela to remind you that no, they are not slaves on a fazenda, they are living in Rio de Janeiro, in the 20th century. The isolation is important. While racist institutions may influence their lives, white people, as individuals, do not play an important role in the story. Black people have lives, communities and stories independent of white people - and that may have been a fairly revolutionary idea on film in 1959. But the movie can, at times, fetishize this culture that would be foreign not only to non-Brazilians, but to white Brazilians as well.

When looking at Orfeu Negro through a racial lens, you must keep in mind of the layers upon layers of various cultural influences laid over the final story. It is a French-made film, set in Brazil, based on an ancient Greek myth. And I am an American, looking at it through my own cloudy pair of glasses. The universality of the myth seems to be an important message. There is the implication that the lovers have been reincarnated. That they should be reincarnated as afro-brazilians, as opposed to say, modern day Greeks, implies love and tragedy are elements to be experienced and understood in all cultures.

Conversely, racism may be experienced in all cultures, but its manifestations will be different in each. You cannot say that the mãe de santo from the Macumba scene looks like Aunt Jemima. You cannot say that Mira, in her Carnaval costume, is trying to be white. To a Brazilian she might look like Xica da Silva. The scene involving watermelon, which I will say is cringe-inducing, may not have the same meaning to black Brazilians as it does to black Americans. I am unsure if Brazilians have the ugly watermelon and fried chicken stereotype. I am unsure if a French director, in the 1950´s, would have been aware of the loaded nature of this image. Are Serafina and Chico just eating watermelon, or is Camus using this image on purpose? Marpessa Dawn, the actress who plays Euridice, was American and was also Camus´wife at the time. While she wasn´t in that scene, it does seem strange that she wouldn´t have said anything about it possibly being offensive. And who knows, maybe she did and no one listened to her.

Is racism universal? Is racism recognizable across different cultures? We like to think Greek myths hold universal truths about the human condition, but what myth speaks to the universal truths of racism?

There are very few white people in the film. After a long opening scene of a multi-cultural Rio celebrating Carnaval, we see a white clerk at the office where Orfeu and Mira apply for a marriage license. He is the one who starts the tension by assuming Mira´s name must be Euridice, as her fiancé´s name is Orfeu. (Just as a man named Romeo might hear jokes about his Juliet.) Not familiar with the ancient story, Mira thinks Orfeu has cheated on her with another woman. This scene is important for plot development – but you could also understand it to mean that Orfeu and Mira are uneducated. Even a lowly government clerk knows about Greek mythology, and they do not. This scene also draws a line between those who live in the favela and those who live in the city, and work at government institutions.

In the first favela scenes, we see a Portuguese merchant who is relentlessly teased and manipulated by the female clientele. The scene is supposed to be funny, especially considering the strange relationship Brazilians have to the Portuguese (Brazilians sometimes make jokes about the intelligence of the Portuguese.) But it also relies heavily on stereotypes of black, female sexuality. Mira herself could be seen as an unflattering stereotype. She is definitely an intense character, edging on hysterical throughout the film. While a breathtaking performance, it isn´t a positive image of a black woman.

The Macumba scene was one that really moved me when I first saw it. I liked how seamlessly the story merged Greek mythology with afro-brazilian religion. However, even my professors pointed out its problematic aspects. For example, in the scene before Orfeu arrives at the ceremony, we see him descending a spiral staircase, at the bottom of which there is a red light. My professors suggested the spirals were suggestive of Dante´s rings of hell. If in the very next scene he attends a Macumba ceremony, it seems to imply that Macumba is hell or of the Devil. I don´t necessarily agree with this association. Neither ancient Greek religion, nor afro-brazilian religions are greatly concerned with good and evil in the Christian sense of those words. Hell is not the equivalent of Hades. Euridice was not in hell, she was simply dead and in the under-world. Macumba was a way to reach her. I found the use of spirit possession (a very real aspect of afro-brazilian religions) as a fitting way to fulfill the myth and allow Orfeu to find Euridice again, if only for a fleeting moment. But I can see how others might be uncomfortable with the imagery. It was up to the director to be sensitive to how viewers would interpret the scene. While some may understand that Hell and Hades are not the same and therefore Camus is not saying Macumba is Hell, the images of spirit possession would have been shocking to white audiences, especially of that era. It probably did reinforce negative ideas about black spirituality rather than teach anything real about Macumba. It was a fairly sensational scene. But it was also real, filmed at an actual ceremony. Is it racist? It´s hard to say.

At the end of the movie we again see Orfeu wander through the bureaucracy of the modern world. After so many scenes set in the favela, in homes without running water, with farm animals in every corner, it is jarring to see Orfeu, in his Carnaval costume, walk into office buildings with file cabinets, temples of the most mundane aspects of modern life. White people exist in these places: in offices overflowing with paper and in morgues with men in suits and sign in sheets. Orfeus´ presence in them is dream-like and anachronistic.

You could interpret the film´s message in several ways. That black people are not part of the modern world; that they live only in the white imagination, dancing and singing and being passionate. Or, as criticism of the white world and its banality and meaninglessness in the face of Orfeu´s harrowing loss. I think the director was probably feeling a mix of the two ideas. He may have loved black people. He married Marpessa Dawn. His greatest work was this film, which is entirely about black Brazilians. But loving something does not erase your own racism. If he valued black culture over white, was it because he found in black culture something missing in his own? This is exactly what Obama criticized his own mother for.

The frenetic energy of the film is cause of both the highest praise and the harshest criticism. Does the constant singing and dancing distract from the reality that life in the favela is a life of poverty? Is it a minstrel show? (Did they even have minstrel shows in Brazil like they did in America?) Actually, this is also a criticism of Carnaval in general. Carnaval is a distraction. But I don´t think the film ignores this. The opening song, A Felicidade by António Carlos Jobim, is a philosophical reflection on just this fact. Happiness is a drop of dew on the petal of a flower...the happiness of the people is the great illusion of Carnaval. And it all ends on Ash Wednesday. The point of Carnaval is that it ends. All the singing and dancing will end. It is all ephemeral, just as love and life are ephemeral. Orpheus and Eurydice had each other for only a moment, and then it was lost.

Marpessa Dawn and Marcel Camus

Is the film racist? Yes. It was made in 1959 by a white French director, how could it not be? (It doesn´t matter that he was married to a black woman and employed black Brazilians in his film) Does that mean it wasn´t groundbreaking for its time or that there isn´t value to be found in it? Obama found it to be a window on his mother´s soul. While he was uncomfortable with what he found there, it allowed him to see his own life in another context. There are many well-meaning white people, who love to travel and to experience other cultures. Learning to do this in the least racist way possible is a work in progress.

UPDATE: A note about comments: As this post seems to bring out a mean streak in some people, I have two requests:

1. Please be sure to read the post carefully before posting a comment.

2. Please be respectful. I don´t mind if you disagree. If you don´t agree with what I have written, that´s great, please explain your opinions and ideas in your comment. I posted the essay because I want to hear other ideas on the topic. But if you use personal or racist insults about myself, the president or anyone else, I can´t publish your comment.

Related Posts:

Orfeu Negro: Is It Racist? Part I

Manhã de Carnaval


Jonathan Pulliam said...

Are you saying you believe it's impermissible to even SUGGEST that it was Barack Obama's own self-hatred and Barack Obama's own racism -- not his mother's, which prompted his knee-jerk dismissal of one of the cinematic masterpieces of our age?

As to the setting for Black Orpheus, I lived in Rio de Janeiro. I know Cinelandia, Lapa, Gloria, Flamengo, Centro, and the environs of "Babilonia" like I know the back of my hand. Beginning In the shadow of former slave markets in the Pelourinho in Salvador, I learned Portuguese. I speak it fluently enough that I successfully completed my third of college at "Pontificia Universidade Catolica" in Gavea, Rio de Janeiro in 1986. My wife is a lovely black woman from Haiti, where a historic slave revolt helped shape our own nation. I lived for a year near the "morro" of Pavaozinho, andI suspect I've forgotten more about contextual differences of racism and the complex role of socio-economics in the "morros" of Rio de Janeiro than you'll ever know. YOU imply Camus' depiction of the character "Mira" must be flattering, or else this may be taken as evidence of his incipient racism. Sure, THAT'S logical. It's leaps of logic like that which confound those who bemoan Obama's tendency to pontificate on subjects he knows little, if anything, about.

By the way, I agree with the Brazilian blogger who posted that Obama would never have been born were it not for the fact of his mother having seen "Black Orpheus".

Heather Leila said...

Ok Mr. Pulliam, I´ve published the one that held the most content. I do think there is plenty of room for argument. Certainly Obama´s reaction to the film was rooted in his own experiences growing up as a black person in America. Although I wouldn´t call it self-hatred. I think you should read the book yourself before you say Obama has issues of self-hatred. I didn´t walk away with that impression.

I think I discuss in the post that racism in America looks different than racism in Brazil. Most Americans would interpret the watermelon scene as offensive to black people. When racists in America want to insult African Americans, including Obama, they pull out the watermelon and fried chicken imagery. It´s fair to say that with an American wife, Camus should have known better.

Obviously I agree that it´s a great film, or else I wouldn´t care so much to write about it.

If you tone down your language I would be more likely to publish your comments without censorship.

Anonymous said...

If you see the world thru "RACISM EYES' then the whole world appears to you to be racism. Just as if you wore purple-tinted glasses. It's a sad way to throw away your life.
Vaya con Dios.

Heather Leila said...

When you set out to write a racial analysis, you are typically looking for those elements in the work that are racist, to bring them to light and for discussion.

I´m not really sure how that means I have thrown my life away.

Anonymous said...

I happen to stumble on this as I was looking for critique on the second Orfeu film, made in Brazil. Orfeu negro was the first Brazilian film I ever saw and I was studying Portuguese at the time, and I loved it and I still love it. I am African-American by the way, and I saw the film in the 1980s. It was shown as part of the Africana film series at my university. I don't recall anyone calling it racist and not liking it. Granted, there are stereotypes in the film and things that would make African-Americans uncomfortable if that film were made today. But it was made in the 1950s, BEFORE the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. Segregation was part of every day life in the USA when this film was made. I was not in Brazil at the time so I cannot say whether Rio was as segregated as the USA then. What I loved about the film was that it was a whole film about black people--and they were beautiful and in love. We rarely saw anything that showed African Americans in love with each other and usually the women were either prostitutes or maids. The men were often pimps or some other criminal. This was something so amazing even shown in the USA in the 1980s. Imagine that Orfeu negro was over 20 years old at that time.

The film is not necessarily "realistic" and that is one of the critiques especially compared with the remake. For sure there were and are hard times in the favelas, but in my personal experience, some Brazilians are a lot of fun and there is a "joie de vivre" that at least some used to have in Rio. (Rio of 1950s is not the same Rio of today for sure). The film is about Carnaval and that is when people let go--it is not about the 361 other days of the year when people may have the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Orfeu negro is an icon. I think it is a masterpiece--the weaving of the symbolism and the music--it has been around for 50 years and people still enjoy it. On person considered it to be the "Disney" version compared to Orfeu (remake). And I don't have a problem with that analysis in 2011. All films don't have to be realistic, authentic or depressing. There is something to be said for making beauty or a work of art. In conclusion, I think for the time that the film was made--in the 1950s, it was definitely ahead of its time in the depiction of black people.

kmp718 said...

Thank you so much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I'm doing some work on racial kitsch (re Tavia Nyong'o) and neoliberal multicultural portrayals of the 'other' in educational institutions. I really liked the connection of the banality of the (white)modernity as opposed to the "soulful" culture that was represented by the black actors. I wonder if the separation of the arts from 'true academia' has to do with the success of black individuals in the arts? I think it's interesting also the notion that by having a black intimate partner, the white filmmaker could feel it appropriate that he depict black living. Thank you so much for this and I was wondering if it would be okay that I reference this posting for a paper, and whether you prefer to be affiliated with an organization or university. Thanks! Also, I love Dante, and never thought about the connection your professor made; although of course it's just one way of interpreting things, I didn't realize the parallels to Dante even in the timing (the timing of La Commedia also takes place during Lent).

Heather Leila said...

Hi knp718! Thanks for the comment. I would love to continue the conversation and hear more about racial kitsch. Please email me at

Anonymous said...

I think that latin people are generally less race conscious than anglo-saxons. I can hardly find any racism in the roman culture. Roman empire was really universal and it was certainly more culturally biased toward Africa (e.g. Egypt) than northern Europe. Barbarians for Romans, as far as I know, are the people from the north (and again it was not a matter of skin colour. Thinking in terms of skin colour is really barbarian). So while not denying the presence of racist cliches, it's not uncommon to find southern europeans that carry what is called negritudo, or black soul.