For the first time, a black family will be the protagonist of a Globo TV Christmas special: ‘Juntos a Magia Acontece’ (together magic happens) airs tonight
By Marques Travae
Christmas in Brazil is always a little strange to me. The first obvious reason is that, being from a northern city in the United States so close to Canada, I’m accustomed to frigid Decembers with a lot of snow. So, needless to say, experiencing the Christmas season with temperatures that hover between the 80s and 90s is a drastic adjustment. For me, it just ain’t Christmas, and I’m not even into this ultimate celebration of capitalism disguised as a holiday. The whole Christmas celebration in Brazil is sometimes a shocking reminder of how much of a colony Brazil remains of the United States. I mean, Santa Claus in a tropical country? I addressed this a bit a few years ago, so I won’t spend too much time on this today.
The old saying goes that the more things change the more they say the same, as this is usually the case in Brazil. The season in the media, like the other 11 months of the year, it is similar to that in the United States in that it is always a very white Christmas, even without the snow. That’s because, as I’ve thoroughly demonstrated over the past eight years, people who most approximate the European standard represent Brazil in just about every genre one can think of, so why would Christmas be any different? But with the rising call for representation, someone over at the nation’s top TV network decided to put a little color in this year’s Christmas, at least for an hour or so anyway.
What does it tell us about Brazil when a television special is being promoted as ‘’the first time, a black family will be the protagonist of a Globo Christmas special? Juntos a Magia Acontece, meaning ‘together magic happens’, airs Christmas night with a story emphasizing the importance of unity and solidarity in overcoming tragedy, conflict and adversity.
Juntos a Magia Acontece tells the story of the Santos Family. On a Sunday morning, on Christmas Eve, Neuza, (played by veteran actress, Zezé Motta), matriarch of the family, is setting up her tree for the celebration. With husband Orlando (Milton Gonçalves), she talks about plans for the new year. However, an accident changes the course of things.
Without his wife, who always dedicated herself to end of the year holidays, Orlando falls into a painful period of mourning. The difficulties of the tragedy are only exacerbated with old conflicts between his children, André (Fabrício Boliveira) and Vera (Camila Pitanga), in addition to his worrying about his son-in-law, Jorge (Luciano Quirino), who has been able to secure employment.
At a time of the year when families are all about joy, togetherness and appreciation, the holiday seems to brings anything but to Orlando’s family. As if dealing with his wife’s death wasn’t enough, his son André distances himself, and his daughter Vera immerses herself in household chores.
To take his mind off of these difficulties, Orlando looks for an occupation: he applies to play Santa Claus in the Christmas campaigns of various companies, but is continuously turned down because of his color. However, inspired by granddaughter Letícia (Gabriely Mota), he continues in his search to play the man in the red suit.
The special presents a family with real life dramas bringing everyday situations that affect families, such as unemployment and interpersonal relationships. For Camila Pitanga, her character Vera is a “mirror of the reality of many Brazilian women who somehow divide themselves between career, work and home care”.
With the extra difficulty presented by her mother’s death, Vera must gather the strength to re-balance the family nucleus. Pitanga believes that this is precisely the meaning of the date of birth of the baby Jesus. “The spirit of Christmas, to me, is the symbol of this man who wants to connect with the life that goes on, with his children, with his granddaughter. Do you want a more symbolic family date than Christmas?”
For writer Jeferson Tenório, projects such as Juntos a Magia Acontece help to naturalize the presence of black people in spaces that until recently were unthinkable. It will be intriguing to see how audiences will react to such a program, considering the reactions they often have when presented with a larger presence of black people than they are accustomed to. Consider the initial comments on a 2018 Father’s Day comercial featuring not a white family, nor a mixed family, but a black father, wth his black wife and black children.
Tenório acknowledges this norm in the Brazilian media.
”Although the Christmas holidays have a whole Eurocentric, classist and white appeal, therefore far from the Brazilian reality, I think the effect on people’s imaginary is important when facing the representation of a black Papa Noel (Santa Claus). From a symbolic point of view, it’s important because it frustrates, to some extent, the racistsystem in which we live,” evaluates Tenório.
The special’s director of photography, Henrique Sales, highlights the challenges perfecting the lighting of the recording contemplating the diversity of the cast:
”I’ve been to some black film festivals and a recurring complaint from many actors is that they are badly exposed. So I was very careful that the skin was well treated and well preserved on the screen. On the scene sometimes we had a huge variation of black skin tones. That was a challenge.’’
Juntos a Magia Acontece is directed by Maria de Médicis and written by Cleissa Regina Martins. New to the first group of the Laboratório de Narrativas Negras para o Audiovisual (Laboratory of Black Narratives for Audiovisual), a partnership between Globo TV and the Literary Festa of the Peripheries (Flup), started in 2017, Cleissa is 24 years old and a graduate in the area of Social Sciences. The special is her debut as an author.
”Each actor created a little for their own character, I thought it was cool, it showed how much they were involved with the text, how much they saw themselves there in some way,” says Cleissa.
Martins points out that the Santos family has issues that affect many families.
“The story is mainly about a family that has conflicts, but comes together because of the wishes of two opposing members: the grandfather and the granddaughter. These two, each trying to overcome a loss on their own, end up involving the family in a plan to help them”
The creator, together with Adriana Falcão, of the groundbreaking series Mister Brau, which brought to the fore the domestic and professional routine of a successful couple of black artists (played by Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo), filmmaker Jorge Furtado regularly participates in Globo workshops in Flup. Furtado believes Brazilian television is growing in quality and diversity from these meetings.
”The importance of the place of speech is much discussed, but there is also the place of listening. Flup is a place where we can hear what a lot of people want to say. I give workshops there, but I also learn a lot. The representation of the black population in audiovisual is growing, but there is still a long way to go.’’
Bahian actor Fabrício Boliveira, whose star has been steadily rising over the past decade and will surely reach new heights in the upcoming biopic about singer Wilson Simonal, plays André, who leaves the family home pursuing his dream of studying filmmaking. This path would lead to conflict with his sister, Vera, who saw her parentes raising the two of them dfferently. Her life was to be devoted to responsibilities and, while he was given more freedom.
The role of André led Boliveira to reflect on the difficulty men sometimes have in sharing their feelings openly. Cleissa’s script gave him this room to think about this. “Many men just can’t talk about sensitivity, that you can ask for help, expose weaknesses. I’m studying a lot about masculinity, wanting to review this place of privilege. I’m not this guy who isn’t rethinking the world. We are here to review our next steps,” he says.
Playing the role of Santa Claus also led veteran actor Milton Gonçalves to reflect upon Brazil’s treatment of its black population. For him, the role representes a step forward both in terms of blacks in Brazil’s media as well as in the society as a whole.
Speaking to a group of journalists, the 85-year old actor spoke on his past.
“Back in São Paulo, they wouldn’t let me in the movies because I was black. Has this ever happened to you?” asked Gonçalves as he delved into the anxieties of being black in Brazil. Speaking on the role of Santa, Gonçalves continued.
“It’s a great emotion, because when I was a boy, there wasn’t a black Santa Claus. When I was a boy, all that was good was not black.”
As reporters listened closely, Gonçalves went further.
“Where I lived, in São Paulo, was a place of black people. There were places we couldn’t set foot in. There was a time when every black woman was a prostitute. My wife, who was white, was disrespected when she said her husband was black. To be here doing this character is a battle of many years, it’s a battle of centuries.”
In his brief comments, Gonçalves, originally from the state of Minas Gerais, spoked on a number of topics that have been discussed on this blog. The practice of segregation, which Brazil has always declared never existed in Brazilian borders, an idea that many Afro-Brazilians have contested. A successful black man in Brazil, Gonçalves also fits into a category that critics say is the rule in Brazil, rather than the exception. Successful black man, white wife.
The significance of the Gonçalves Santa character was also felt by actor Camila Pitanga, who comes from a family of actors.
‘’When I first saw Milton dressed up, my eyes filled with tears because it’s something that says a lot without being a pamphlet. Who says Santa can’t be black? If it’s a fiction that we accept, this fiction can have many faces and just as we see the need for children to see dolls with their color, with their hair, it’s very symbolic, we can see a black man as Santa Claus. Making a Christmas special that talks about the story of a black family is a motive of much pride.’’
To be sure, I will be checking out the Juntos a Magia Acontece on Christmas night, not because I’m into Christmas, but because it’s 2019 and we’re still far from not having to point out that this is ‘’the first black’’ this or that. I understand the excitement of the actors because that’s how white supremacy trains us. It excludes us from so many things for so long that when it decides to give us a ”present”, we are so invested in ‘’making it’’ in the white world, we react as if we’ve somehow overcome something. I would think that black folks would have learned something after so much hope in the first black president of the United States led to basically nothing changing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In recent years, we’ve seen a number of characters that have long been represented by white people being revamped and featuring black people in these roles. One recent example was the buzz about the Little Mermaid. Now, word of the street is that a well-known African-American actor will be the first black man to portray the Man of Steel, Superman, in a film.
Again, I can already hear the hype and celebration in the black media. But let’s understand something. You can’t expect that making a well-known white character black or non-white will suddenly change the paradigm. These characters are and will remain white in the imagination of most people and until we see a massive and consistent change in ultra-white representations of what can be seen as rich, famous, beautiful and powerful, we will be once again deceiving ourselves into expecting change in things that will remain the same.
Usually, in these types of features that are expected to reach mainstream audiences, the one black lead in the film is still surrounding by an overwhelmingly white supporting cast, which we’ve seen in too many films I can name. What does this tell us about the acceptance of white audiences when something is deemed to be ”too black”?
A few years ago, when the second straight black woman was named the winner in the Miss Brasil contest, more than the previous 61 years combined, I wrote
“before we go too far in our celebration, let us remember that this is simply one small step. We still have a LLOONNGG ways to go for black Brazilians to be represented in the same proportion of which they make up the overall Brazilian population. And this writer has no reason to believe that Brazil’s media will easily relinquish the adoration of white women as the standard of beauty any time soon.”
This statement can just as easily be applied to Brazil’s media in general.
Juntos a Magia Acontece, which goes on air on December 25th, is written and created by Cleissa Regina Martins, with supervision by George Moura and artistic direction by Maria de Médicis and consultancy by Kenia Maria. The cast features Milton Gonçalves, Zezé Motta, Camila Pitanga, Fabrício Boliveira, Luciano Quirino, Tony Tornado, with the participation of child actors Gabriely Mota and Ícaro Zulu.