Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in June 2020.
Considering Brazil is the country with the largest African diaspora, it is expected that the origin of a black Brazilian cinema is perhaps impossible to pinpoint. Cinema was brought from Europe around 1897 by immigrants coming to the country as part of an official governmental effort to whiten the population and replace the workforce of enslaved African and Afro-Brazilian people after the 1888 Abolition. Coinciding with the very last abolition of slavery in the Americas, the origins of Brazilian cinema are therefore not only white – as complicated as that term is to the country’s racial configuration; they are programmatically anti-black.
In Tropical Multiculturalism, Robert Stam calls race “the structuring absence” of early Brazilian cinema, pointing out that, even though a few titles might provide a hint of the presence of Afro-Brazilians on screen (whether it’s because a film was set in Salvador, Bahia – a city that is around 80% black – or because it focused on aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture, such as capoeira and samba), the fact that so few of Brazil’s early films have survived (roughly 7%, according to Cinemateca Brasileira) has created another fold of erasure of this presence, conditioning our understanding of race in/through the cinema. The bond between economic disparity and racial prejudice stands out in the production of home movies just as well: according to a great article published by archivist Hernani Heffner earlier this week, the first known home movie made by an Afro-Brazilian middle-class family dates from around 1956.
The importance of affirming a racist concerted effort in the history of Brazilian cinema is complemented by the equally necessary acknowledgement and celebration of the work of black actors from fairly early on, often in complicated roles that forced the performers to bend and negotiate with racial stereotypes: the first role of circus star Benjamin de Oliveira in a fiction film dates back to 1908 (playing an indigenous character), likely inaugurating a lineage of film actors of color that, just in the following decades, would lead to legendary actors like Grande Otelo (who stars in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio, Zona Norte; Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma, and was a superstar comedian of studio Atlântida), Ruth de Souza (a rare black female actor in films by the pompous studio Vera Cruz), and at least two of Cinema Novo’s better-known performers: Antônio Pitanga and Zózimo Bulbul.
In 1973, Zózimo Bulbul directed what many historians claim as the foundational myth of black cinema in Brazil, even though it is not the first Brazilian film by a director of color: the short film Alma no Olho (Soul in the Eye). An activist and experienced actor who’d appeared in films such as Leon Hirszman’s Pedreira de São Diogo (São Diogo Quarry, 1962) and Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Land in Anguish/Earth Entranced, 1967), Bulbul’s highly-performative and self-reflexive directorial debut is a wordless essay on the black experience under the white gaze.
Shot using leftover black and white film stock of Antunes Filho’s Compasso de Espera (1969-73) – which Bubul starred and co-wrote – Soul in the Eye mimics the setting of a studio shoot. Pressed against the white background, Bulbul himself poses and interacts with the camera (and the audience), to the sound of “Kulu Sé Mama” (1965), by John Coltrane, to whom the film is dedicated. Starting with inserts of Bulbul’s body parts that recall both the scientific racism of ethnographic imagery and the fetishization of the female body in films such as Domingos Oliveira’s Todas as Mulheres do Mundo (1966), Soul in the Eye escalates aggressively to Coltrane’s improvisations, exploring the entanglements between desire and ownership, visibility and exposure, representation and stereotype.