Note from BBT: It’s been a minute since I discussed the position of black women and black Brazilians in general in film, TV and theater…Well, I have discussed some new online platforms, including a new sitcom featuring Margareth Menezes, but my discussion of race and film and TV goes back to when I first started this blog back in 2011 under the name Black Women of Brazil.
The film and book A Negação do Brasil by director Joel Zito Araújo opened my eyes to this topic about 20 years ago. It’s 2021, and I’ve witnessed some changes in Brazil’s audiovisual market. This includes a number of black men and women directors who had made names for themselves and won some awards along the way for their work so there has been some progress although it’s still far from the ideal in terms of racial representation.
In today’s post, I bring an interview with an actress I recently featured in a post about a special aired on Brazil’s top TV network, Globo, back on Black Consciousness Day on November 20th. Actress Naruna Costa speaks on some of the characters she portrayed on TV, film and theater, as well as another topic that takes me back to an issue that numerous black Brazilian women have also voiced concern over: the representation and image of black female sexuality in the public mind.
I haven’t had a chance to do anything on Costa’s original Netflix series, but I hope to get to it soon, as it heads into its second season and the scenes from this drama look pretty intense.
Naruna Costa: “To protect myself, I avoided roles that sexualize black women”
By Mariana Gonzalez
Naruna Costa has at least 15 years of experience in TV and theater, and a resume that includes roles such as Elza Soares and Angela Davis – but the most profound character of her career, she says, is Cristina, from Irmandade, a Brazilian Netflix series that has just been renewed for the second season, still without a premiere date.
In the series, she is a lawyer who works in the Public Prosecution and discovers that her brother, who has disappeared for years, is in prison and is the leader of a rising criminal faction in the 1990s. “She transits the idea of being a good or bad person, ethical or unethical. What defines Cristina are the dilemmas, this is passionate, few black characters have this depth in Brazil.”
Naruna was chosen to represent Netflix’s initiative to dedicate the first US$ 5 million (about BRL 29 million) of the Netflix Fund for Inclusive Creativity – which will allocate US$ 20 million (BRL 116 million) per year for the next five years creating more inclusive structures behind the scenes – to develop female talent. According to the platform, the amount will be donated to four international programs that help to identify, train and offer employment to emerging female talent around the world.
With the Universa website, she spoke about the still low number of black women in audiovisual production, asks what are the roles that actresses like her have and shares a dream: to do more roles that are not associated with skin color.
UNIVERSA: You’ve had roles such as Elza Soares, in the theater, and Angela Davis, on TV. How important are these characters to your career?
NARUNA COSTA: I consider that my trajectory is a little removed from most black actresses in Brazil. Despite not being so relevant in the sense of being more popular, better known, I had the privilege to vary my characters a lot, and to escape stereotypes. I think any role that is detached from a stereotype that subjects black women to subordination and inferiority is extremely important. Playing a teacher in Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (Today I Want to Go Back Alone), a film that had national projection, was very important, because she is a figure of absolute dignity, and it was as important as playing Angela Davis last year, in the special Falas Negras, of Globo TV.
And which of these characters inspires you the most?
Being chosen to play Angela Davis was an honor, she is a woman who represents me a lot, she speaks to my militancy and the black struggle in Brazil. But I think that all the characters that I did, in some way, speak to my struggles.
What made you able to play these characters, while most black actresses still get the same roles?
When I started, I was aware that I should fight for roles that would not put me in an inferior position, almost for self-defense. I am a favela (slum) child, I knew that if I entered the audiovisual playing characters that characterized me in a violent way, it would reverberate in even more violence in the streets.
To protect myself, I have always avoided hypersexualized characters. I was already sexualized outside of work simply because I was a black woman, so even though I needed to work, I ran away from these characters.
Of course, it’s very important to have black women in the audiovisual, but we need to question the quality of these presences. In past generations, the important thing was simply to be there, to guarantee space. If today it’s possible for me to negotiate my roles, it’s thanks to the black actresses who came before, who set foot on TV and never took it off.
Is there a character you dream of playing?
I don’t have a dream character. My dream, like that of many black actresses, is to perform roles that are not glued to the color of our skin.
Any big role that has a role beyond the figure of the black woman will be a dream come true – not only artistically, but thinking about the social. A black actress playing a character in which the question of blackness is not imposed is a sign that society has advanced, that the black figure is seen in a humanized way.
What is it to be a black actress in Brazil in 2021? What are the advances?
I see improvement, but I don’t think it is significant. We still walk with very slow steps. Not only do we need to move forward in racial discussion, there are setbacks. Due to the merit of the black movement and the cultural movement, we have reached a point where it is impossible to abandon the question of representativeness. Children today have some reference, the step will always be forward. When I was a child, the lack of references was such that many girls dreamed of becoming white women, and this is very violent. Today, black children still suffer, of course, but as a result of this trajectory of struggle, of occupying spaces, they have references, and can see beauty in cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair), in the color of their skin. That is a very positive thing.
What is the role of art in your life and in the lives of girls who are growing up today in the peripheries?
I started in the theater, and I understand the theater as a place of discussion far beyond the institutional environment of the school. It’s not just an entertainment space, it is a right – but, unfortunately, there are no public policies that think about culture in this way. I always studied in a public school, and I considered myself a good student, but I left basic education with an immense gap of information about my country, politics, the history of the black population. All of this I went to learn, debate and question from the theater. Not offering arts as a basic right is a way of making us question less.
In an interview with Universa, Luana Xavier said that she has a preference for theater over TV because she believes that the stage brings more freedom of performance. Do you agree?
I think there is such freedom. But I see that this comes more from group theater – in my group, Clariô, the proposal is for autonomy, diversity. Most productions are still closely linked to professional men and whites, where blacks have little chance of playing big roles. To give you an idea, I was one of the first black actresses to do Antígona (Antigone) in Brazilian theater, in 2017. Before me, I know of two, but they were reinterpretations, and not the complete one. Antígona is a tragedy written 500 years ago, mounted almost every year, and there are no black women protagonists, this is shocking.
In 2019, you were the first black woman to win the award for best theater director at the Associação Paulista de Críticos de Artes (São Paulo Association of Art Critics). How important was that for you?
I was the first black woman and also the second woman to win in this category. I think this is a gigantic advance because it breaks the expectations of people, who don’t imagine that it is a black woman who directs any play. This award brought my existence to the fore.
When we talk about the physical genocide of the black population, it is a terrible fact, especially in Brazil, but there is also a genocide of memory. If we are invisible, we can be exterminated, because it will not have an impact.
Once I am introduced to a space that I have never been part of, my existence is counted, and we, black women, gain more time in life.
What do you and Cristina, from Irmandade, have in common? What strikes you most about the character?
Cristina is a rich character not only because she is the protagonist of a Brazilian series on a worldwide platform, which is an explosion in itself, but because she has a very human trajectory. There is a side of the Irmandade that is within common sense for a black cast, which is a prison environment, and drug trafficking. However, the advance that I see in the series is precisely the story of Cristina.
She transits the idea of being a good or bad person, ethical or unethical. What defines Cristina are the dilemmas, this is passionate, few black characters have this depth in Brazil. At some point during the first season, we forget that she is black, and anyone wonders what she would do in her place. That is humanity.
And what can we expect from the second season?
I can’t say much yet, but you can expect a lot of emotion. If the story is strong in the first season, now it will get worse.