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Brazil: An Inconvenient History

(BBC; US DVD: 28 Feb 2012)

Ah, Brazil. Land of the sultry samba, raucous Carnival revelry, and throngs of scantily-clad locals – of all genders – frolicking along sun-dappled beaches. You, the lucky tourist, stationed at an oceanview cafe in Rio, tap your fingers lightly to Astrud Gilberto’s shimmering “So Nice (Summer Samba)”, as a swarthy, blue-eyed waiter delivers your platter of feijoada, and the Girl From Ipanema saunters by, wearing little more than an insouciant smirk. Life is sweet.


This Travel & Leisure fantasia – stoked by the international bossa nova craze of the ‘60s, not to mention the annual Rio Carnival’s bacchanalian reputation – has lured millions of travelers to this overwhelming South American country, but as a South African professor friend of mine points out, Brazil’s renown as a decadent hub of easy sensuality may be something First Worlders construct in their minds. Surely, the world’s largest equitorial nation is a more complicated place than many realize.


To wit, Phil Grabsky’s documentary Brazil: An Inconvenient History, produced for the BBC’s “Timewatch” series presents a wholly different narrative of this troubled country rapidly transforming into a global powerhouse. Yes, Brazil has lovely beaches, an incomparably rich musical heritage, and an attractive populace unbound by Northern notions of sartorial propriety. It also has a particularly shameful past as the foundation of the most extensive forced migration in human history.


Americans (such as myself) often imagine that the bulk of Africans kidnapped from their homelands were transported to my shores, but in fact, most were shipped to the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and Central America. At least four million, or 40 percent, of those unfortunate souls wound up in Brazil, named after a much-valued type of wood that was prized in 16th-century Europe. In the decades prior to Spanish naval dominion, Lisbon was the spoke in the wheel of global exploration, and this tiny nation had been importing slaves to the Cape Verde Islands for 50 years before Columbus’ unplanned arrival in the Caribbean. Of course, Portuguese authorities first enslaved indigenous Brazilians, but this scheme quickly fell apart as the ‘Indians’ succumbed to European pathogens. As was the case with other European powers, they soon eyed Africa as a labor pool, and began the transport, taking people mostly from the future lusophone colony of Angola.


As Grabsky explains, Brazil was an especially brutal society for the displaced Africans, as the slaveholders viewed Africa as an infinite resource. If the tap could never be turned off, there was no impetus to treat their ‘property’ with a modicum of decency. As sugar became a prized condiment amongst Europe’s affluent set, sugar cultivation took off in Brazil, becoming the #1 agricultural product. Cruelty was rife – we hear a harrowing tale of one dreaded master who slices off the breast of a female slave after a visiting dignitary expresses a fondness for them – and slaves were branded much like cattle would later be in the American West.


Of course, over the centuries, as in any racially tense human mosaic, a sort of melting pot developed, as Portuguese mixed with Africans and whatever natives still remained. This pot was further spiced during the 20th century, other European ethnicities, i.e, Italians, French, Germans arrived on the continent as immigrants by choice. This was actually a deliberate plot by Brazil’s light-skinned criollo elite, in their Third Reich-ish attempt to ‘whiten’ the country’s population following the abolition of slavery, which by the way, didn’t occur until 1888, more than two decades after the conclusion of the American Civil War, and 80 years after the United States banned its Transatlantic Trade. This seems analogous to Hitler’s plan to breed more golden-haired, blue-eyed Germans or Australia’s less-discussed importation of British children to fill up their empty nation, thus staving off emigration pressure from the nearby Asiatic countries.


Out of this diverse biological admixture forms contemporary Brazil’s polyglot tropical culture. Without the African presence, you wouldn’t have samba rhythms, thus, bossa nova could not have existed. Would you have the gleeful, exhausting Carnival, Brazil’s spiritual counterpart to New Orleans’ storied Mardi Gras? I think not. The custom of very casual seaside attire is more difficult to quantify, as one can find plenty of that, even stark nudity, along the Cote d’ Azur. I suspect that the steamy humidity, unfamiliar in temperate Europe, plays a major role in Brazilians’ beachwear choices.


Brazil: An Inconvenient History doesn’t dwell too much, however, on African contributions to Brazilian culture, choosing instead to rake the muck of a history little-taught in Brazil today. It’s mentioned that 21st-century Brazil leads the world in income inequality, even as the rapidly-modernizing country grows wealthier. Also, that white remains the color of upward mobility, as evidenced by the home décor selected by many middle-class Brazilians, or the “Ebony & Ivory” dichotomy present in John Updike’s magical realist interracial love story Brazil.


As in South Africa, violence – borne of economic desperation—continues to be a significant impediment to progress, and this is reflected in cinematic crime epics like the distractingly stylish City of God or Carandiru, not to mention the landmark tragic-romantic Pixote. Phil Grabsky’s Brazil: An Inconvenient History is a brief but thorough primer for audiences who have flocked to those films, and desire a deeper understanding of Brazil’s heartbreaking duality. Grabsky utilizes stills, motion footage, and interviews to weave a compelling tale too often swept under the rug, and this doc holds its own against many productions one might see on PBS.


Brazil’s racially-tinged socioeconomic divide likely won’t disappear anytime soon, despite several momentous events in its immediate future, namely the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and 2016’s Summer Olympiad, to be staged in the tony section of Rio de Janeiro. I expect that Ary Barroso’s chestnut “Aquarela Do Brasil” will be crooned at both. This tune, a rather ironic embrace of the country’s essential African component, nevertheless has a lilt simultaneously joyous and melancholy, not unlike the nation that spawned it.


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