A call to protagonism: Controversy over the lack of blacks nominated at the Oscars reverberates among those who make art in Brazil

um chamado ao protagonismo
um chamado ao protagonismo
Um chamado ao protagonismo
Cia dos Comuns of Rio de Janeiro. To create spaces of representation, the group devised by Hilton Cobra, is formed exclusively by black actors and actresses

Note from BW of Brazil: The recent controversy stirred up by American film director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith calling for a black boycott of the 2016 Oscars ceremony due to a lack of black representation is yet another issue coming from outside of the country that provoked reflection about the situation regarding Afro-Brazilians. While African-American artists continue to struggle to be recognized among the best in the genre for their art in the most important film awards ceremony in the world, Afro-Brazilians artists continue to struggle for mere recognition. In a Brazil that continues to promote itself as a country of wide racial diversity, in the country’s elite circles, this diversity is, for the most part, non-existent. The country’s media has no problem presenting casts (news, film, television) that are either exclusively white or overwhelmingly white, but the idea of presenting anything with a black majority is still frowned upon, avoided or seen as “ghetto”. Such is the reality for black people involved in Brazil’s media. Below, a few prominent voices weight in on the topic that appeared in a recent issue of the O Tempo newspaper. 

Um chamado ao protagonismo (2)

A call to protagonism

Controversy over the lack of blacks nominated at the Oscars reverberates among those who make art in Brazil


In the tangle of traces of a history of exploitation and alleged supremacy of races, the much celebrated diversity of peoples is made itself absent in artistic productions, which arouses some questions: What are the stories narrated? What images revealed? By whom and in what way?

Old questions gained, a little while ago, a new force to going through a worldwide window of visibility. With no nomination of black actresses, actors and directors for two consecutive years at the Oscars, the American film director and actor Spike Lee questioned the ceremony that is, in his eyes, more and more white.

Cia. dos Comuns
Cia. (Companhia) dos Comuns

“What he did was a call, a request to all black for compelling attitudes because the white elite makes itself in our lack of courage. He was fiddling with the Oscars, which appeared to be unattainable. Unfortunately, we can’t react the same way when it comes to Globo TV,” says Hilton Cobra, former president of the Palmares Foundation and creator of Cia. dos Comuns, a São Paulo theater group formed by a black cast.

Hilton Cobra
Hilton Cobra

Letting the skin speak and broadening the discussion to other artistic fields beyond film, Magazine heard from activists, artists and thinkers reflections that touch on the recognition of the black artist and the paths that he/she follows to produce his/her art.

Lee’s gesture, brings to the debate the need for quota policies, as the director spoke in respect to the Oscar awards. “When the subject is quotas, I adopt the position: they are always the second worst thing you can do with respect to the redistribution of social places in Brazil and worldwide. The first is to do nothing. Because whoever is against doesn’t present another suggestion to end this absurd idea ,” says Ricardo Aleixo, poet, plastic artist and musician from Minas Gerais.

Ricardo Aleixo
Ricardo Aleixo

For him, the experience that we have in universities should be taken also to other areas, including, the field of arts. “We have to deconstruct racism and the invisibility of blacks and naturalize their presence at all levels of artistic and cultural life. It doesn’t matter by what means.” But he doesn’t fail to mention his preference. “It would be better if the recognition didn’t have to win this way.”

The essayist and teacher Leda Martins constructs her point of view looking at something even prior to the awards. “We need to think about the exhibition and the visibility of the artist, because opportunities to exhibit and perform an artistic work are not democratic. But the relationship of the forms of production and recognition of the work is not straightforward. What does it mean that artists should not be valued for being black, white, Asian.”

Leda Martins
Leda Martins

In this regard, Aleixo traces his intimate trajectory and manifests the desire of another conception of  black art. “If I could, I would not consider joining these words together: artist and black. The junction in itself shows that something is out of place, in the way that society distributes opportunities. I have made art since age 11, and at that initial moment, I didn’t see me as a black artist, I saw myself as an artist.”


To come to moments of celebration and awarding of artistic works, there seems to be, particularly in the Brazilian context, the need to take a step back in the discussion to reflect on access to means and processes of production of art. “How will the artist compete for prizes if he is not on stage? How will he be seen if the place given to him is secondary? The search is for the work to be recognized for quality and competence. But it’s no use having talent if he remains in the shadows,” affirms professor Leda.

Jeferson De, a São Paulo filmmaker, draws attention to the paths that an artistic work travels.  “I always think of the authorities who decide, for example, what movies should be made? Which will be selected? Are these spheres, as much in Brazil as in the United States, we blacks are not represented, we are not a part (of it),” he recalls.

Jeferson De
Jeferson De

And, in this sense, speaking of quotas seems to find larger spaces of acceptance. “Juries, curators, programmers and art critics come into play in an important moment which is that of, with various looks, celebrating diversity and recognizing the artistic merit. In these instances of decision, I am in favor of quotas because, for a long time, it was white men who decided what should be Brazilian cinema or art,” says the filmmaker, asked last year to be curator of the Rumos Itaú Cultural edicts. “My presence among the evaluators also involves the insertion of a diverse look.”

It is thinking in these spheres of the path of an artistic production that Jeferson points to paradox of the Oscar. “What is striking is that the president of the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) is a black woman and this didn’t influence other decision-makers,” says the filmmaker.

In this regard, the US magazine Variety, the bible of the film industry, has made public the weight of its responsibility for the lack of diversity in films and among award-winning actors. “The hierarchy of Hollywood studios is still an exclusive club, directed by white men and one white woman. The large talent agencies have almost no members belonging to minorities. And the vehicles in charge of covering the sector – including Variety – only employ a few people of color,” says the text of the magazine.

In a study undertaken by the writer Ana Maria Gonçalves, author of Um Defeito de Cor (A Defect of Color), she interviewed a producer from São Paulo who does casting for film, who prefers not to be identified. “This person said that when directors or writers do not specify that the actor or actress should be black, of course, a white person is called for the role. Even though there is no indication that points to the racial question of the character. The racism is so entrenched that no one thinks of the possibility of giving a role to a non-white,” says the writer.

Ana Maria Gonçalves
Ana Maria Gonçalves

The interviews that Ana conducted also show another difficulty faced by black actors. “If he is considered handsome, he is also excluded because he does not fit the stereotypical image of the black man.”

Ana gives these examples to show how racism intersperses the tools of the artistic makings, controlled, mostly by white men. And in literature, its territory, it would be no different. She points to studies of Regina Dalcastagnè, a professor at UnB who analyzed the profiles of characters from Brazilian novels, published between 1990 and 2004 by three of Brazil’s largest publishers. In addition to identifying that 84% of protagonists are white men of the upper class, 74% of the protagonists are men and 80% are white.

The data also indicate a higher incidence of foreigners (25%) than of black Brazilians (7.9%). “The numbers point to the speaking place of the writers. Blacks, when present in the literature, are the hoodlums, the porters. While there are no more blacks talking about their own reality, this discrepancy will continue.”

For researcher Leda Martins, if there is emphasis on appreciation of the creations of white artists, the representations and narratives that gain space also deserve to be evaluated. “The characters are drawn and the themes approached stem, in large part, from a universe that excludes. In general, we observe that the participation of blacks in the American film industry is higher than in Brazil, especially if we consider that 53% of the Brazilian population self-declared itself black in the last census. The diversity that founded our society does not extend to artistic productions. And the same happens in theater, soap operas and also outside of the artistic fields such as news programs and advertisements. We are exceptions in this environment and when we appear, we are always in stereotypical or secondary roles,” she says.

Etienne Martins

She was thinking about the lack of representation or the distortions of representation of the history of blacks that journalist Etienne Martins created last year with the newspaper Afronta. “It is a space for us to tell our story. If we look at the media and Brazilian productions, we see a country that is not black, which is not consistent with reality. Our history is always spoken by a mouth that is not ours, so it is important that blacks tell and speak about our own life.”

lançamento do Jornal Afronta
Etienne Martins, center, at the release of her newspaper ‘Afronta’

It’s in this sense that the Movimento Negro (black movement) seeks affirmative action for incentive mechanisms for cultural production, destined to the vices that represent the edicts and laws.

“The process of the exclusion of blacks was not a natural process, it was forged from above a by a superior whiteness. Therefore, we are fighting for quotas for minority in these edict processes so that their cultural and artistic projects are realized. These artificial mechanisms are needed for the construction of a social balance,” says Ana Gonçalves.

In a study for the Palmares Cultural Foundation, as president in 2013, Hilton Cobra identified that of the R$5.35 billion budget of the Ministry of Culture, only R$300 million were consumed for the production of black art and culture. “We cannot win in this insane fight this insane without the institution of a policy of quotas that has been the only way to climbing resources and spaces. There is no other way for black art,” said Cobra, director of Cia. Dos Comuns.

Source: O Tempo, O Tempo (2)

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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