Note from BBT: When you become aware of the history of African descendants in Brazil, you often times come to a sad conclusion: black Brazilians have contributed so much to Brazilian history and culture but yet they continue to invisible in terms of representation and recognition. Although I can say with full conviction that, in the past decade or so, this has improved in an almost miraculous manner, the fact remains, because they’ve been ignored and invisible for so long, the advances that have been made still come up far short when considering this population’s importance in the country’s history.
It’s sometimes pretty strange to meet black Brazilians who know so much about black Americans but then when the topic turns to discussing blacks in Brazil, I’m often surprised when I, as an African-American, know more about prominent Afro-Brazilians than Afro-Brazilians themselves. Another example of this happened last week. It was a Friday, and I was planning to go to travel to one of the numerous beautiful beaches on the coast of São Paulo state and wanted to get a haircut before hitting the road for the 2-3 hour road trip.
For some reason, the doors of my regular barber in zona norte São Paulo had been closed for several days, so I was in search of a pinch hitter. There are three barber shops within a 15-minute walk radius here in the neighborhood, but besides my regular not being available, another barber that I’d be wanting to try was booked for the time I had, and another spot was also closed.
There was still one other place that I would often pass on my daily walks through the neighborhood. There was a black man who I would also nod to passing by, his shop was open so this time I stopped in. it immediately struck me that the brotha was about as tall as me, which is that common in Brazil being that I stand over 6’4’’. The brotha whose name was Felipe was cutting someone’s hair as we talked so I had the choice of either waiting or getting my hair cut by his partner, a much shorter guy who was a mixture of Brazilian and Japanese. As I was in a hurry, I accepted.
As I sat down in the chair, the bumping sounds of vintage 80s Zapp filled the atmosphere. Felipe and the customer he was trimming up, also black, were kickin’ it along with another, younger black guy who waited his turn. The sounds and the chatter reminded me of the numerous times I sat in my regular barber shop in Detroit. The barber shop is the spot where black men feel free to talk like black men talk and that’s the vibe I got in Felipe’s shop.
As everyone came to understand that I was American, this led to discussions on a number of topics, the first of which was music. after a few songs by Zapp played, then another old-school joint came on, ‘’Anticipation’’ by the Bar Kays. Even though it was common to hear old school black American music in São Paulo, I hadn’t heard this one in years.
The song took me back like ‘’that’s my SONG!’’ as my barber, whose name I can’t remember, started to cut me up, I started to ask Felipe about the black American music he liked. The first two groups he mentioned were Earth,Wind and Fire and somebody called Zeppie. ‘’Zeppie? Who is Zeppie?’’, I asked. Was he trying to say Led Zepplin? Clearly not a black band, but I wanted to understand what he meant. So, clicking on his remote, Felipe played the 1982 hit ‘’Dance Floor’’ and that’s when I realized he was referring to Zapp, the same group whose songs ‘’Be Alright’’ and ‘’I Wanna Be Your Man’’ were playing when I entered the place.
It’s often funny how Brazilians pronounce words in English. It was curious to me how the Brazilian pronunciation of the phone app WhatsApp morphed into zapzap and then just zap, but yet when it came time to say the name of this American band, it came out as ‘zeppie’. Go figure.
Anyway, when they asked if I knew of any Brazilian music, I started running down a list of 70s and 80s Afro-Brazilian singers and musicians I liked. Tim Maia, Cassiano, Luiz Melodia, all of whom they were familiar with. But then I mentioned that my favorite was the Rio-based band Banda Black Rio, they all looked at each like, ‘’who?’’. So, demonstrating my point, these guys knew of Zapp, EWF and other black American bands but had never heard Brazil’s own legendary Banda Black Rio. In reality this has been the norm in Brazil for years. Brazil has hidden important Afro-Brazilian figures from the general population so much so that it is still common for Afro-Brazilians to be more familiar with iconic African-Americans than their own people.
Which brings me to today’s topic. In my own education on the history of black Brazilians, I’ve come across the stories of numerous important personalities that the population as a whole should know about. Abolitionist Luis Gama is one of those figures. Acting as a lawyer, Gama’s place in Brazilian history is somewhat reminiscent of a Frederick Douglass or a Harriet Tubman, yet most Brazilians seem to have never heard of him.
A few years ago, I remember reading an interview with a prominent Afro-Brazilian lawyer who was speaking on the honoring and naming of Gama as a lawyer 133 years after his death by the OAB, the Brazilian Bar Association. The lawyer remembered that in all of his years of formal education, including on the graduate and post-graduate level, he had never learned anything about Gama. Because of the racism of his era, Gama was barred from law school but teaching himself, he was able to secure the freedom of hundreds of slaves legally.
So, why don’t most people know Gama? I’d say it’s the same reason that millions of Brazilians have never heard of André Rebouças, José Patricinio, Abdias do Nascimento, Luiza Mahin and many others. In a Brazil obsessed with whitewashing its history and people, black contributions to history are simply ignored or relegated to only being slaves.
In some cases, people have actually heard of some of these people, as there are streets, bridges and avenues named after them throughout the country, but everyday people only them as names, or, if they do know who they are, they don’t know that these were black people. This is the case for people such as writer Machado de Assis and the President of the Republic in the early 20th century, Nilo Peçanha.
In 2015, a play in which the legendary Tia Ciata was portrayed by a white woman in a play made headlines. Ciata was a well-known candomblé priestess who played an important role in the rise of the samba in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the past few decades, Afro-Brazilian activists have fought to have these figures recognized as black in various publicity campaigns.
The recognition of these people is an ongoing, but slow process. There have been plays exhibited about the life of Luis Gama on various stages in Brazil, and there was also a recent miniseries about the famous 1835 revolt of the black Muslims known as the Malês in the state of Bahia. During the yearly Month of Black Consciousness in November, various activities and events pay tribute to many of these unknown Afro-Brazilian personalities.
The Gama story is a necessary piece of information in a Brazil where black people continue to be treated as if they have no value. The Gama story is one that also needs to be shared with entire black world, which will hopefully happen when Doutor Gama is shown during the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), the biggest black film event in the world, which was announced a week ago. Originally, the film was set for release in Brazilian theaters on June 29th of this year, but it actually hit theaters on August 5th and then the Globoplay streaming video platform on August 14th.
Let’s hope that this film is only the beginning of the recovery of these black stories.
Film ‘Doctor Gama’ about Afro-Brazilian abolitionist Luiz Gama, debuts in theaters and streaming platform; lawyer legally liberated 500 slaves
Film recaptures the memory of one of the most important abolitionists in Brazilian history
By Eduardo Pereira and Pedro Henrique Ribeiro
Doutor Gama, meaning ‘Doctor Gama’, a cinebiography of Brazilian abolitionist leader Luiz Gama, arrived to the Globoplay television programming catalog on August 14. Directed by Jeferson De (director of the critically acclaimed film M8: Quando a Morte Socorre a Vida), the production recaptures the story of the lawyer, journalist and writer, considered a national hero for his activism against slavery in the 19th century. Gama is considered the first black lawyer in Brazil.
The son of a freed African woman and a Portuguese descendant, Luiz Gama (César Mello) was sold at the age of 10 by his father to slave traders to pay off his father’s gambling debt and sent to São Paulo. In the city, Gama taught himself to read and won his own freedom through the law. This interest in reading opens several doors for the development of the man he would become.
He later became an abolitionist activist and throughout his life freed more than 500 enslaved people – starting with himself. Although he was not a university-trained lawyer, he possessed a vast knowledge of the laws of the time and obtained authorization from the Judiciary Branch of the Empire to advocate, being the first black person in the history of Brazil to be in the position of advocating in the courts.
His mission was to free and guarantee the rights of people in conditions of slavery, and to demand that the existing laws in the country be enforced. Among the main arguments used by Gama to save black men, women and children was the law that extinguished the slave trade to Brazil, but which was ignored by the criminals.
The narrative of Doutor Gama is divided into three parts and begins with a brief demonstration of the relationship the protagonist had with his mother and father. In a few minutes we see the child (Pedro Guilherme) being sold. At that moment Gama loses three things that, although abstract, have an extremely concrete meaning: freedom, trust in the white man (represented by the father), and the right to have a shoe. The following scenes show the boy beginning to understand the sordid rules of slavery and connecting with new father and mother figures-which he then loses. A passage that tells us, without wasting time, that it was impossible for an enslaved man to gain a safe haven.
The cycle of childhood closes and the next scene shows us a young Gama (Angelo Fernandes) with no prospects, until he comes into contact with literature. The last scene of this second part makes a direct connection with the end of the first, for it is in this scene that Gama reassumes his place as a free man and regains his right to wear a pair of shoes. The director made sure to include this symbolism in the film because it is still alive today. As rapper Emicida would say, “money is the disgrace of the people, but have you ever seen the smile on the face of someone who got a new pair of shoes? A pair of sneakers represents a lot to a young person from the periphery, and this scene dialogues very well with this public.
In the adult and free phase, Gama (César Mello) appears as a mature lawyer, involved with a case considered impossible to win. The trial in fact did not exist, but was written in the film based on other cases in which Gama worked, which makes the story more dramatic.
The main highlight in the narrative is the choice not to spectacularize black suffering in order to tell Gama’s story; it is a decision probably made because the people behind the cameras are also black. At a time when Hollywood productions about the scourge of slavery and its cultural heritage in the U.S. flirt with exploitation, the Brazilian film tackles extremely delicate subjects like slavery, racism, rape, and the marginalization of black people without reproducing violence in order to talk about them. Gama’s turning point trajectory takes priority over shock, a focus that lives up to the importance of his abolitionist struggle.
It is hard to believe that a personality like his took so many years to be turned into a movie. Even more frightening is to think that Brazil has a gigantic diversity of black personalities who deserved to have their stories told on the big screen, but don’t have them.
Director Jeferson De felt the weight of this responsibility when he accepted to direct the feature. “I thought to myself, this is a story that I would like to tell, of this man who had a personal trajectory very similar to that of a hero. At first it came to my mind: ‘but had no one ever made a film about him? There are several films about Tiradentes, even about independence or death, but none about Gama. So, it emerges from this desire to connect people in a bridge with the historical research of his life. This is not a definitive work about Gama; his story can be, and I hope it will be, unfolded in many other works”, he said in a press conference.
A film about Gama is more than a tribute to his life. It is rescuing a story that we know little about, but without which we might not have advanced this far as a society. So why not invest in more productions like this one? Gama’s director himself already developed the film Carolina (2003), about the writer Carolina Maria de Jesus. We need more films like these to get to know the reality of our past and the names that made a difference in the history of the country.
Just portraying the stories of these people, however, is not enough. There needs to be diversity on the other side of the camera, actress Mariana Nunes, who played Claudina, Gama’s wife, reminds us.
“We need more mixing in the audiovisual teams. We talk a lot about diversity, and people confuse diversity with quotas. They don’t think of management positions, of leadership, beyond diversity, of inclusion. It’s necessary to bring the diverse and provide conditions for them to be full in this place”, she said.
Cinema has responsibilities when it comes to narratives and social justice, but it is from basic education that should come all the basis for people to at least know the history of their own country. The actors in the film told that they had not even heard of Gama in school or college, for example. Knowing the lives of black Brazilian personalities should be commonplace, since white history is always told. So, when Doctor Gama fulfills this social role that should be the state’s, it proves to be a revolutionary production.
Besides Mello and Isabél Zuaa, Zezé Motta, Johnny Massaro, Mariana Nunes, Romeu Evaristo, Sidney Santiago, Dani Ornellas, Erom Cordeiro, and Nelson Baskerville, among others, are also in the cast.
The film is a co-production by Globo Filmes and Paranoid, with associate production by Buda Filmes and distribution by Elo Company. With a script by Luiz Antonio, consultancy by researcher Ligia Fonseca Ferreira, executive production by Joelma Gonzaga, SABESP sponsorship, and Mattos Filho support.