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.