Reviews

That Great Intriguing Mulatto: 'Brazil: An Inconvenient History'

Yes, Brazil has lovely beaches, an incomparably rich musical heritage, and an attractive populace. It also has a particularly shameful past as the foundation of the most extensive forced migration in human history.


Timewatch

Website: www.seventh-art.com
Distributor: Microcinema
Length: 50 min
Network: BBC
Release date: 2012-02-28
Amazon

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.

There are no extras with this DVD.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.