There’s a common misconception Brazilians indulge whenever they hear about the centuries of brutality that white Americans inflicted upon the black people they brought over as slaves. We say: “In Brazil, we are not racist. Everyone coexists.”
It’s as if the absence of de jure segregation, or the lack of a Portuguese term equivalent to “Jim Crow” sends the country into collective amnesia. Are my compatriots even aware that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888? Do we even remember why cities like Porto de Galinhas or Pelourinho are named as such?* Do we think that these historical barbarities simply faded into the ether, leaving no legacy of trauma behind that we must deal with in these times?
At one point, I too fell in the trap of thinking Brazilian race relations were better than whatever fresh hell was currently aflame in the United States. This was no surprise. When (and why) would a young, light-skinned, well-off Brazilian have an accurate perception of the magnitude of anti-black sentiment in the country? But this assumption met its end when I first watched Filhos do Carnaval.
Created in 2006 by Carlos Hamburger (artistic name: Cao Hamburger, which sounds quite comical in English) and Elena Soarez, Filhos do Carnaval is a two-season mini-series about Anésio Gebara and his sons: Anesinho, Claudinho, Brown, and Nilo. Anésio owns the Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel samba school and is a banker for the illegal (and wildly popular) lottery game Jogo do Bicho, literally translated as “Animal Game“. When Anésio’s eldest and favorite son, Anesinho, kills himself, the remaining brothers are forced to reckon with each other and with their father.
Anésio Gebara is a proud and nasty man. A womanizer, his four sons come in varying shades and live drastically different lives from one another. Anesinho, whom we don’t get to meet, is white, was poised to take over his father’s role as owner of the samba school. Claudinho, the second eldest, is pale, sallow and wily. He uproots his family to live in Rio now that the task of running the samba school falls to him. After Claudinho comes Brown, whose skin matches his nickname and who lives in the favela with his wife Glória. Brown spends his time composing samba beats and cheating on Glória. Finally, we have Nilo, through whose eyes we see the story unfold. Nilo is big and ebony-skinned and works as his father’s chauffeur and bodyguard. Despite his size and the grunt work he’s forced to do to keep the whole machine moving, Nilo is invisible to his brothers and to his father.
Suffice to say, after watching the first episode, I had changed my mind about racism in Brazil. I wasn’t so sure anymore if it was different from American racism. Is it even useful to differentiate racism by nationality or culture, when the outcomes of those oppressed by racism are invariably the same? Poverty, police brutality, difficult or non-existent social mobility, lack of access to resources and opportunities, depression, disease, death—all are consequences of systemic racism the world over. Every person of color knows this; it’s only news to many white people.
Anésio Gebara’s callous refusal to consider Nilo and Brown as his “true” sons mirrors the way Brazilians of darker skin are denied “true” citizenship in the country. Anésio doesn’t care to look Nilo or Brown in the eye. He doesn’t care if they are hurt or homeless or hungry. He doesn’t allow them entry into his swanky Ipanema apartment. He only speaks to them when he gives them orders. He divests his dark-skinned sons of their dignity, and he is completely indifferent to the emotional and psychological destruction he has wrought. Anésio Gebara represents not only a type of man that is ubiquitous in Brazilian society, he also represents a system that thrives on injustice and corruption and survives even after the men who created the system die.
But Filhos do Carnaval deserves more than an analysis defined by my own discovery of obvious facts. Though it can serve as a powerful artifact of political or social commentary, the series succeeds on aesthetic merits alone. The title sequence mesmerizes as a supercut of images from Rio’s Carnaval and seedy scenes from the Jogo do Bicho lottery flash to the tune of Gui Amabis and Beto Villares’ samba-inflected score. Despite the bright colors of the masks and the feathers and the floats, a black, grainy filter tinges the images and lends them an eerie, nightmarish quality. Disembodied hands trade money and count bets that people have placed on little slips of paper. Seconds later, the needle of a sewing machine stabs the fabric of a Carnaval costume, a black cat crosses the screen, the silhouette of a gravestone appears. Other animals that play symbolic roles in the Jogo do Bicho—rabbits, ostriches, snakes—jump in and out of view.
The episode begins with Nilo’s first-person voiceover narration, an expository strategy that Brazilian filmmakers have loved and relied upon for quite a while (to the point that it has become almost cliché—when someone wants to make a “good” or a “serious” film, they insert the protagonist’s introspective narration whenever there’s a break in the action). Once begun, the episodes progress with poetic urgency, propelled by the snappiness of the script and the virtuosity of the acting.
Like many works of art that reflect the reality of life in Brazil, the series is equal parts tragic and beautiful. An undercurrent of foreboding and danger buzzes constantly in the background of every scene and interaction, no matter how joyful or terrifying or funny. Death and disappointment (usually—but not always—engendered by the men) coexist with the strength of female characters such as Glória and Ana Cristina, who hold their families together when everything seems to be burning around them. Resolution and unification frequently come in the form of death—it is Anesinho’s death in the first episode that unites Anésio, Claudinho, Brown, and Nilo, if not emotionally then at least physically. The four of them carry their brother’s lavish coffin and lay it in the sepulchre. By the end of the series, two more important deaths occur, each of them causing different forms of frustration, sadness, or relief, depending on whose viewpoint you adopt.
Currently, Filhos do Carnaval can be watched in Portuguese in its entirety on Youtube, although it pains me to see that HBO has not made this fantastic and Emmy-nominated miniseries more widely available through legitimate means. In Brazil, it does not appear on HBO’s app and it cannot be found on iTunes. DVD box sets are available for sale on Amazon and on Latin-American e-commerce sites such as Mercado Livre. At the time of its release, the series saw airplay in a few Latin-American countries, so it is possible to buy DVD box sets in Spanish online. Whether any of these box sets have an option for subtitles in English remains to be seen (and the person who uploaded the episodes on Youtube did not enable language subtitles either).
Filhos do Carnaval is precisely the kind of work of art that should be more accessible to Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike. When watching it, we are confronted with realities we might not have seen or might not have chosen to see. The blend of each character’s flaws and assets—Anésio’s cruelty and power, Claudinho’s ineffectualness and persistence, Brown’s roguishness and sincerity, and Nilo’s resignation and lovingness—elicit emotional reactions that form the base of new paradigms, paradigms more complex and accurate than “racism doesn’t exist in Brazil” or “poor people are poor because they lack moral fiber and are lazy.”
More importantly however, in addition to dramatizing the agents and the victims of white supremacy and economic inequality in Brazil, Filhos do Carnaval lets the resilience of Brazil’s citizens and the sublimity of its culture shine. Much like a samba school incorporating elements of historical or social hardship into its parade and fusing pain with revelry, Filhos do Carnaval finds a way of lamenting the misery that informs the magic of Brazilian life without letting this misery hijack the story.
* Porto de Galinhas and Pelourinho are names of cities that make direct references to the era of slavery in Brazil. Porto de Galinhas (literally, port of chickens) was a prominent port where slave ships delivered their human cargo, and was named thus to sidestep the authorities after certain European nations had banned transatlantic slavery. Pelourinho is named after the column of stone or wood in the middle of a square where slaves were punished by whippings.