Note from BBT: I’ve always taken issue with Brazil’s mass media’s obsession with always presenting the slavery era on its airwaves. Back in 2016, I was amazed to find that two of nation’s top television networks, Globo and Record, were both presenting novelas, soap operas, that were set in the slavery era. More than six generations after the abolition of slavery in Brazil and rising demands for better and more representation by the country’s black community and the best black characters they could come up with were slaves?
On the other hand, I know full well why such portrayals continue. The media is not simply meant for entertainment, it is often times a reflection of the collective psyche of its viewers but also a form of social engineering to either change the society or keep it the way that it is. In the case of the relationship between Brazil’s white and non-white population, it is clear that certain forces would prefer to keep its black population in the position of subservience.
As we regularly hear of comments made by white Brazilians toward black and brown people, the sentiment of white superiority and supremacy is still buried deeply in the minds of the nation’s citizens. With these ideas still firmly planted in the collective imagination, what role does would a soap opera, seen by millions of people every day, play in how everyday people continue to subscribe to this master/slave mentality?
While you ponder that, also think about the manner in which television can often distort history. If people aren’t experts on a particular historical subject or haven’t spent any time researching a specific period in history, television series and films can and often do become the viewers’ understanding of history whether the situations depicted are actually true, somewhat true or entirely false.
These are all the thoughts that passed through my mind when I learned that television giant Rede Globo was to air yet another of its ever-popular novelas set in the era of slavery once again. Well, with the media’s history of showing black slaves, it can’t get any worse, right? Needless to say, since the debut of the novela Nos tempos do Imperador, meaning ‘in the emperor’s times’, it’s pretty easy to know the answer to that question.
Novela “Nos tempos do Imperador” misrepresents history and causes anger from black activists
By Guilherme Soares Dias with additional information courtesy of Janelas Abertas
The soap opera Nos tempos do Imperador of TV Globo’s 6pm time has caused revolt among black activists who say they are tired of seeing black people represented in subordinate ways, in addition to presenting a good Dom Pedro II (Brazil’s last monarch in the 19th century). On social networks, the plot is classified as a “disservice” and questioned for not bringing a more conscious look at the history of Brazil.
The digital influencer Tia Má made a post questioning the plot that, as she recalls, is fictional, but portrays a historical period and has real characters. “Dom Pedro II, in the soap opera has the charisma and charm of @seltonmello, but in “real life” he wasn’t that cool. He was not an abolitionist! Don’t forget that Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, and because of external pressures,” she points out.
Maíra Azevedo remembers that during the slavery period, even freed blacks were not allowed to circulate freely in the streets. A black man could never be sitting alone with a white woman in the middle of the street. “He would be arrested, decapitated”, she reinforces. Maíra reminds us that society needs to move forward and show history with various looks. “Our struggles and collaborations help people to have a more conscious look at the history of Brazil. Even today, black people continue to earn less, have fewer opportunities, are at the bottom of the social pyramid, in underemployment,” she points out.
“Just because you are white you can’t live in little Africa? How can we have the same rights if we do the same things to whites as they do?”, said Samuel, who is black, after the character Pilar, who is white, was not accepted to live in ‘Little Africa’. “It’s scenes like this that become truths to people uninformed about the slavery period,” says Ad Junior, host of the television program Trace Trends. He continued, “Applying the concept of reverse racism in a speech is very dangerous and this scene will live in the heads of thousands of people. A total disservice.”
”Pequena África”, or ‘Little Africa’, for those who don’t know, is the historic home of the Afro-Brazilian community in the Port Region of Rio de Janeiro. The name was given by samba songwriter Heitor dos Prazeres in the early 20th century. The region became known as Little Africa after the slave trade became illegal in Brazil in 1831 (although the abolition of slavery did not take place until 57 years later). Between 1850 and 1920, freed slaves remained working in the region. Freed blacks and Africans from Bahia or the interior traveled to Little Africa in search of work and a sense of community.
Little Africa often welcomed blacks from all over the country, where simple homes, religious centers, spaces for daily living, political and artistic mobilization, and an increasingly strong sense of cultural identity. ‘Little Africa’ became the epicenter of black culture in Rio de Janeiro and it was in this context that samba emerged as a musical genre, gaining visibility throughout Brazil.
But this is not what Rio’s white elite wanted to see. As time went by, reforms were made in this region to make it look more “European”: many buildings were demolished and the population was expelled to more distant areas. Little by little, the city erased this piece of its history. This is just one of the underlying reasons why so many black Brazilians who are familiar this history take issue with the picture that this new novela seeks to paint.
The editor of the Mundo Negro website, Silvia Nascimento, was accurate in her text about the premiere of the novela. “Novelas set in the past should come with a trigger warning. Black slavery in Brazil, the longest in history, is not fiction. It’s impossible to see scenes that involve abuse by owners against enslaved blacks, whipping, shackling, and murder and not imagine that a not-so-distant ancestor of ours had this scenario of terror as part of his or her daily life. Silvia also points out that the novela will try to humanize the Emperor who did not abolish enslavement. “Even from what the author says, we can see that the social and educational advances will be more relevant in the plot than the dehumanization and abuse of the kidnapped Africans and their descendants,” she points out.
The pressure that is beginning to emerge from social networks is for TV Globo to change the chapters already recorded and insert the black struggles and the clamor for abolition that took place in quilombola maroon society regions and in revolts that erupted in the 19th century. To portray Dom Pedro II as good-natured and not question the period of slavery is to reproduce a mentality of the period that the soap opera portrays.
The network has already had to commit to more diversity and change previous plots after questioning by the black movement, as happened with Segundo Sol, a 9pm soap opera that had mostly white actors despite being set in Bahia, a state known for its large black population. At the time, the Public Ministry of Labor (MPT) sent a document to Rede Globo asking the network to make changes in Segundo Sol so that the soap opera feature more black actors. Fourteen recommendations were made to have more racial representation in the production and also in all of the network’s products.
Now the expectation is that the story of Nos tempos do Imperador will be portrayed with a 2021 perspective and make the necessary judgment of those who exploited black labor as if they were not human. The abolition of the black population is still urgent today.