Black Bandits: How Brazil’s media continues to perpetuate the racist image of black criminals
By Marques Travae
In past reports I have referenced the works of the filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo, perhaps most often his groundbreaking 2000 documentary O Negação do Brasil (Denying Brazil) that broke down and analyzed the presence and stereotypes of black Brazilian characters in the history of Brazil’s ever popular soap operas, which are called novelas.
There have also been posts that detail some of the stereotypes that seem to be tried and true representations of black Brazilians on the small screen. A few of those stereotypes include the ‘mãe preta’, somewhat similar to the American ‘black mammy’, the maid, the faithful bodyguard, the slave, the sensual black women and the trickster.
Another of the most common stereotypical characters is the criminal or thug element. there are too many examples of the character to go through thoroughly in this article, but back in 2012 I posted one of my first pieces on how black Brazilian men are often cast in these roles. That year, the Globo television network debuted the series Subúrbia which was promoted as groundbreaking at it featured a 90 percent black cast, unheard of for Brazilian television.
But after high hopes and promotion, the series quicky descended into the very same stereotypes that had been presented for years on Brazil’s television market. Record TV had already explored the guns and drug theme with black characters on its novela Turma do Gueto, and as suburbia continued, the character Cleiton, portrayed by the talented actor Fabrício Boliveira some took on characteristics of the murderous drug kingpin Zé Pequeno in the highly touted 2002 film Cidade de Deus – City of God.
When I look at many of these images, I think of a line the late, great comedian Paul Mooney’s character in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled said: ‘’Why do they treat us like that?’’ Even with the outcry and criticism of these images, it appears that at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, such portrayals of black men have continued.
For example, producers didn’t seem to think they were wasting the talents of actor Douglas Silva, who played a prominent role in Cidade de Deus as a criminal figure. In the novela Amor de Mãe, Silva portrays a drug dealer, and besides his white friend Sandro, who became a respectable and rich man, his social circle was made up of black criminals.
In Cidade de Deus, Silva portrayed a young Zé Pequeno who displayed a penchant for murder and violence at a young age. Actor Leandro Firmino portrayed an older, even more violently murderous Zé Pequeno. Like most of the black actors in the film, neither Silva or Firmino were able to parlay their success in that film into A-list actor careers. In the series Impuros, Firmino’s character enters a life of crime after losing his job.
When we consider the fact that black men are regularly judged as ‘’suspects’’ when they are seen in upper crust neighborhoods, we must also ask what effect these types of characters disseminated in the mass media have on the Brazilian psyche. In the 2017, a story shared on Facebook warned residents of Rio’s richest neighborhood that there were two black men walking around on a beach. There’s no way to separate this story from the way black people are treated when they try to enjoy the city’s finest beaches.
This question was raised again recently when a black surfing teacher, Matheus Ribeiro, was wrongly accused by a white couple of stealing his own bike. In novelas directed by Manuel Carlos, and many other soap operas which are set in the upper crust Rio neighborhood of Leblon, there is a lack of black protagonists who are not connected in some way to poverty or criminality. Black Brazilians are rarely ever seen as consumers, individuals with spending power, or victims of white people. The treatment that actress Erika Januza once received in a store is evidence that black people are automatically assumed to be poor.
What people don’t seem to realize is that when black faces only appear in these sorts of roles in television productions or on the news, particularly those of the sensationalist type, it produces an unconscious bias that instinctively connects what is regularly seen on TV with real life. I don’t have to explain why this is. One other point that I would be remiss if I didn’t point out is that, I don’t see it as any coincidence that all of the actors mentioned in this article (Seu Jorge, Oliveira, Silva, Firmino, and Logam) that portray criminal characters are all dark-skinned black men.
Films and television series in which black people participate in criminal scenarios include the aforementioned City of God, a spinoff such as the Cidade Dos Homens – City of Men – film and series as well as series such as Irmandade (Netflix), and Impuros (Fox). If we don’t see series such as these depicting black people as criminals, then we have Brazil’s long history of novelas set in the era of slavery.
As I’ve argued before, the only way such a scenario can change is when black Brazilians can begin to produce their own content. The recently released Wolo TV internet streaming channel is one such example. The channel presents a more well-round depiction of black life with its debut series, Casa da Vó, being one of the most representative programs of what it means to be black in Brazil today. With debates on the idea of ‘Black Money’ and conversations on the job market, the problems within the black community, as well as victories and achievements, become visible.
Today’s black community in Brazil is seeing a growing number of black doctors, scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. But because they aren’t viewed in the mainstream media as experts in various fields, this often leads to shock when people encounter black people in these particular areas.
Several years ago, after the controversial surrounding the lack of black actors being nominated for Oscar awards, there was a brief discussion of a boycott of Brazilian television programming and series that portray black people in stereotypical manners. In reality, this idea was never really considered at the time because there are too many black actors who depend on this type of work, regardless of what the roles said about the black population. The only way that platforms such as Wolo can grow is if Afro-Brazilians start watching black national productions that portray the community as it is really is. This would also help white people in the process of deprogramming the images that have been imbedded in their minds.
In Brazil, it may be true that black people are the most arrested and imprisoned, but this doesn’t mean that they are always the most criminal. Various studies show that when white people are busted, they actually have more narcotics on them than black people. I will explore this in more depth in a future article, but the bottom line here is that, not all black people are criminals and not all white people law-abiding citizens.
It’s about time that the media acknowledge this.