Ruth de Souza: Pioneer of Black Representation in Brazilian TV
Note from BW of Brazil: We always know that death will eventually come to pass. Be it someone dear to our families, friends, people who we admire, people with notorious reputations, and yes, ourselves. When I first started doing research on the black influence in Brazil, I can remember the first time I ever saw the veteran actress Ruth de Souza. It was in a film called Boca from 1994 (see the trailer here). As it turns out, that film was actually an American-Brazilian remake of a previous Brazilian film from 1990, which itself was adapted from a play and a 1962 film written by famed director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos.
The film told the story of Boca de Ouro, meaning “mouth of gold”, and for good reason due to the character’s noteworthy dental work. The crime boss was abandoned by his mother, the leader of a drug trafficking gang, in a filthy bathroom. The erotic thriller focuses on the gangster’s telling of his life story to an American reporter known as JJ, played by actress Rae Dawn Chong. As it turns out, the film would become my introduction to the rampant extermination of street children in Brazil, a topic that has been featured periodically in BW of Brazil archives. De Souza plays a character known as Senhora Esteban. JJ interviews the notorious Boca who takes on the businessmen who are behind the murder of the children, who they blame for scaring away clients.
This B-film hardly scratches the surface of the importance of the career of Ruth de Souza, as I would later see in a number of other films as well as documentaries and novelas such as O Assalto ao Trem Pagador, Sinhá Moça, A Negação do Brasil, As Filhas do Vento and Duas Caras. Although I’ve never actually seen the novela A Cabana do Pai Tomás, I have read a number of reports about this soap opera over the years, as it was my introduction to Brazil’s usage of white actors to portray black characters by painting them in blackface, a practice that has its own history in Brazil and which has stirred up controversy even in recent years.
In the past few years, the great Ruth de Souza was featured in a book and film about her trailblazing career, and in 2013, a number of the current generation of black Brazilian actors paid homage to her at the 12th edition of the Grande Prêmio do Cinema Brasileiro (Brazilian Film Grand Prix), a moment in which I felt a sort of joy mixed with sadness as it was one of that goose-bumpy sort of feelings that you feel pride in such a deserving person being honored for her life’s work by the actors for whom she paved the road for, but also a realization that Ruth may not be with us much longer.
Ruth passes away after living one year longer than her mentor, the great Abdias do Nascimento, the man who helped her start her career with his groundbreaking Black Experimental Theater (TEN) that gave opportunities to black actors that Brazil’s stages at the time would not. Thank you Queen Ruth for your legacy. Generations of Afro-Brazilian actors continue to advance the role of black people in Brazil’s entertainment business.
Ruth de Souza, the pioneer of black representation in Brazilian cinema and theater, dies at ae 98
By Bruno Carmelo
This Sunday, July 28, Brazil said goodbye to one of its greatest film, theater and television actresses: Ruth de Souza. She died at 98 years old, after a period of hospitalization in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, for the treatment of pneumonia.
The day was marked by honors from great national actors, in recognition of Ruth’s importance to national art, especially for artistas negros (black artists). After all, she was part of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater), the first theater group composed of black actors to perform at the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, with the play O Imperador Jones (Emperor Jones).
After a training in theater in the United States, including studies at Harvard University, he returned to Brazil and gained space in dozens of films, especially Terra Violenta (1948) and Sinhá Moça (1953). In 1968, Ruth de Souza becomes the first black actress to star in a telenovela (TV soap opera): Janete Clair’s Passo dos Ventos.
Ruth de Souza
Although officially retired in recent years, she has participated in important recent Brazilian documentaries, such as A Negação do Brasil (2000) and Pitanga (2016), both focused on the issue of black representation. She has always called for greater and better representation of blacks in the arts, criticizing the stereotypical roles of servants and slaves.
In 2019, her legacy was honored by the Acadêmicos de Santa Cruz Samba School. It was in part, thanks to the talent and pioneering spirit of Ruth de Souza, that Brazilian cinema has the names of the magnitude of Zezé Motta, Milton Gonçalves and Grande Otelo, friends with whom she worked on various projects.
Source: Adoro Cinema