City of God: Ten Years Later, or one acid nation under a groove (Redux) (Written by Ana Saplala)


I originally watched Luciano Vidigal and Cavi Borges’s 2013 documentary as preparation preceding the movie itself. While I initially didn’t think much of it because I had little to no knowledge about the film’s plot, it’s more of a disappointing thing to go through now that I’ve seen and continue to embrace what has been helmed as a staple of world cinema; a masterwork that continues to be permanently engraved in its national culture on levels of iconography that have kept every Brazilian release proceeding it nowhere near as untouchable — almost , dare I say it — God-like, if you may.

Ironically, this remains so for a film about a world that is practically godless and nowhere near salvageable, if not so close to its own reality that it portrays — that its cultural reception actually remains widely detached from the worldview of Black Brazilian identity.

The country is home to the second largest Black population in the world…and yet its most privileged class continues to be in denial of its existence. It’s sickening to know that whatever border racism crosses that isn’t in close proximity to the United States, the national culture surrounding it (French, Portuguese, Brazilian, Korean, you name it) renders it nonexistent — that is, when it’s been ingrained within the colonialist hegemony of world history that they’ve been taught or experienced or forced to conform to, some of them just being massively comfortable about it, so it’s hard for that chord not to strike you as one of incredulity and disturbance.

Unless someone is willing to point out the actuality of Black (mis)representation in all facets of Brazilian society, the transcendence of racial inequality will always go unchecked. This is not only limited to the white population and white-passing population of Brazil, but parts of the Black population as well who, according to a series of conversations that writer Marques Travae has had over several years, have come to the following conclusions:

  • That racism isn’t a problem
  • That white people also face some sort of discrimination
  • That everyone is supposedly equal

  • “I never noticed” 

As a result, the prevalence and visibility of racism in Brazil that is clearly highlighted in this documentary only brought a number of important things to mind. One of them was the neck test (teste de pescoso), which is something I kept coming back to when Roberta Rodrigues expressed the difficulties of being Black in Brazil (Seu Jorge also directly addressing this stagnance without hesitation in the same interview beforehand).

That to be a Black actress in Brazil, the role must still have their race written in front of their gender, characteristic, sexuality and occupation. That they ought to be not just any lawyer, but a Black lawyer. That the role itself is simply not enough to describe an individual who is also just another human being, that the normalcy with which one sees Angelica (a girlfriend) is deemed as dehumanizing when seen in a character (who partakes in dehumanization, no less) like Ze Pequeno (a Black drug lord). The rest of Brazilian society can be seen as important as they humanly are, while there is still nowhere near a positive connotation with which they associate its Black working-class counterparts.

While Rodrigues expresses this as a barrier, another Black actress considers this gap between white and Black society as an abyss. That actress is Tais Araujo, one of the highest-paid actresses in the world whose national level of fame can be equated to that of Halle Berry. Alas, she still falls into the same statement Rodrigues made given the artifice of Black life surrounding the torrent of novelas that Globo manages to churn out without breaking a single sweat — something they would be universally reputable for if Brazil’s first language was not Portuguese.

Might I add the fact that Lazaro Ramos (Araujo’s spouse and the country’s equivalent to Denzel Washington) would be the first Black male lead in a novela, playing none other than an oversexualized alcoholic. Even if Ramos has jumped to defend the role, it still does not change the difficulties of portraying cultural authenticity in Brazilian media. It’s no longer ironic that its most dominant population remains disproportionately represented, but incredibly disturbing amongst existing in every corner of the country.

Nonetheless, Rodrigues’s point still stands as such, as she too has fallen victim to this statement from firsthand experience in the years following City of God. We see that she has had several stints in novelas, taking on and amplifying the tired and toxic trope of the sassy Black woman. We feel that sense of discomfort after knowing the humanity she brought to Bernice’s character for the minimal time that she spent on screen. With that, we know that the bar remains low even when Brazilians are the people setting standards for Black women and on-screen representation in the media.

It’s why an actress like Tichina Arnold and a show like Everybody Hates Chris upholds this standard of mediated representation as a piece of American media that Brazilian media has yet to (if not completely failed) to touch. It’s something that most Brazilians treasure for the reason that its authentic depiction of working-class Black communities is an unattainable vision in the eyes of Brazil’s media industry, especially when these communities aren’t emboldened in criminal activity. As prolific as the show has always been in North America, it remains both fascinating and disappointing that (despite North America’s own struggles to further elevate nuances within and surrounding mediated representations of Black culture) a piece of media from a continent with the most pronounced racial history continues to set the bar for a country in a continent that pays it the least amount of attention. That Arnold and the series set the bar for Black Brazilian media as an example of genuine Black representations of poverty with nuances that keep its people and their lives incredibly human.

What does this even have to do with the neck test? For one, the neck test often contradicts those following opinions about racial injustice in Brazil when a quick Google search just won’t do. A show like Everybody Hates Chris can prompt one to go out into Brazilian society and turn their necks in schools, hospitals, hotels, and shopping malls to see how many clerks, students, doctors, jewellers, cleaners, models, teachers, politicians, and beggars are Black.

One could do the same thing when checking in at a hotel in Brazil, and turn their neck to see if the concierge is Black. Or they could turn on the TV in their room and spot how many journalists, anchors, or artists are Black. If you wanted to speak to a bank teller in Brazil, what even is the likelihood that you could turn your neck while waiting in line and see that a Black teller will be there to assist you?

It’s more disconcerting to know that aside from Seu Jorge (given an incredible musical career and all of his Bowie-covering glory), the one other person who managed to sustain their career from this film had the predictability of achieving it through the privileges of nepotism (aside from making their name through the U.S. theatrical poster — no, your eyes aren’t fooling you at all). Hence why actresses like Alice Braga remain a part of the neck test’s most commonly noticed subjects, even if the inherence of colorism and the existence of racial injustice in Brazil may not necessarily be things that they themselves have explicitly denied in their careers.

Even Alexandre Rodrigues (Buscape) and Leandro Firmino (Ze Pequeno), two of the film’s leading men, both chose to be paid 16,000 reais ($3000 USD) upfront than take a percentage of box-office revenues — monstrous amounts, to say both the most and least of a film that they had no idea would generate a large gross worldwide. Never mind that the actual cut was 1% of the box-office revenue. Said percentage of the worldwide gross would have been 25 times more profit to their names.

As is the case for many films set in South American communities or any global community housing a significantly impoverished population, the line between exploiting its people and exposing their circumstances continues to blur. It also wouldn’t hurt to say that this information would have one believe that the line itself is non-existent, or that these pieces of media were meant to be mutually exclusive. In a film flooded with Brazil’s most dominant population, we still have to ask ourselves of the nation’s culture: Is it a multicultural country, a racial democracy, or a nation void of racial equity?

This only made me go back to Tais Araujo’s statement of the abyss between Black and white society in Brazil, and pretty much anywhere you go. That the color of herself, her children, and her entire family incites society’s change in repulsion and the unwillingness to maintain its cultural receptiveness towards Black people. And not just how much Black Brazilian men are also born being at risk of being considered a delinquent, but how much Black Brazilian women are also raised to please under male standards; how their existence is used against them to be silenced and disqualified from an already conditionally binary society.

The alarming statistics that Araujo mentions in this TEDx Talk do not stray away from the film’s unflinching portrayals of crime. In fact, this documentary does not fail to mention how some cast members have either resorted to crime, suffered from hanging onto the fringes of poverty, or completely dissolved into society after the fever dream that was this film’s release and reception. They have dissolved into a society whose riches lie in plurality and diversity, one continually hampered by the inequity of cultural representation and pay, two things that the film itself did not hesitate to check and therefore contribute to outside of its sprawling cinematic landscape.

In that same talk (which was also met with unsurprising scrutiny), Araujo brings to mind James Baldwin’s statement that neither love nor terror makes one blind, but indifference. Conformity is a form of indifference, and something that City of God’s own production team hasn’t batted one lash at since the minute its final product saw the light of the rest of the world. While it did open up the gates for films of a similar vein (Tropa de Elite and Cidade Baixa being two of them), how much did the production itself do to actually incite change within these communities? How much did its unprecedented love for those surviving the horrors that make up a part of its culture actually manage to squelch said horrors as a result of its position on a global scale?

Araujo also states the equality that the country shares under the law, and the existence of the opposite in practice. However, she does not see said difference as a problem. Rather, she sees the indifference within this inequity as the country’s major setback; the indifference that stagnates what she (and many of us) would rather see when interacting with Black life and Black culture in general: to look at it with humanity and affection. Inequity towards race and class as a result of the consistent mystification of racial iniquity is what prevents Brazilian (and every) society from (and taints this film’s) understanding that the other is an extension and a part of who we are as human beings, as well as how we function as a society. The narrative and photographic lens of Buscape may soften the film’s blow of bringing audiences into the harrowing reality surrounding the favelas and truly exposing its cycle of both insititutional and interpersonal violence, but what it truly does to help erase its perpetuation will forever be its scathing question to bear.

This also brings up an essential point of opposition in terms of how the film impacted the real Cidade de Deus — that of Brazilian rapper MV Bill, a resident of the community who disparaged Fernando Meirelles’s magnum opus as an exploitative piece of work that only managed to contribute to the stagnance of crime that runs rampant in the area to this day. Bill’s criticisms noted that the film brought no human benefit to the favela, or any favela for that matter, given that the conditions of the City of God have hardly improved since the film’s release.

One can be more critical of the film’s ending when its intentions implicate a mentality of picking oneself up by the bootstraps, ultimately overshadowing the foundational issues of extreme poverty by focusing on the role of a passive individual rather than the community as a whole. Not everyone can be Buscape and follow through with their aspirations to attain success. For one, Rubens Sabino (who played Neguinho) is only one of many talented people who continue to live on the fringes of extreme poverty. Even if his knack for musicianship is shown in this documentary, he may never be able to rebuild himself towards a point of sustainability with which his limited time as an actor became his sole introduction to the rest of the world. This is not because of a lack of effort on their part, but because of the institutions, systems, and legislations that continue to stifle them from defying the sustenance of these conditions.

As a result, these only confine and marginalize other individuals into a cycle of violence that carries on in real life. Those young boys who played the Runts? They’ve become part of a notorious gang in Rio by the name of Comando Vermelho, or the Red Command, once a left-wing group now void of its political ideologies. Their resort to drug and arms trafficking continues to infiltrate heavily populated slums in and around the city of the Redeemer. Whether or not the film influenced these individuals’ decisions to partake in organized crime is unclear, but what remains clear is the fact that as faithful as this film stayed to depicting the lives of its people, it never ended up serving them to begin with.

It all leads back to the way that this documentary showed how this film ended up being handed to the world as the country’s landmark release. However, this does not take away from the documentary’s greatest setback on whether they want to celebrate the film or criticise its makers for what they believe is an exploitation of its community. Even if City of God never fails to hone in on the harrowing atrocities of the favelas, we have to wonder if its cultural ripple had just decided to stop itself before its filmic stone even managed to hit the water. This is not only specific to films like these (and not all of Brazil is what this film has had some of us believe), but to any film that aims to represent Black life. If anything, the humanity of this film attempts to be countered by this documentary as part of a cultural showcase, which respectively argues that the film’s showcase of poverty is not necessarily the same as a thoroughly nuanced representation of the diversity and pluralism of Black life in Brazil.

Regardless of the points that the documentary fails to fully expand on, the importance of its content remains when posing questions and inciting discourse concerning City’s critical impact on the state of race relations in Brazil. The more that this film continues to receive its deserved attention, the more that I can’t help but think of the aftermath of its release. Even a quick Google search of this film’s reception at Cannes only generated a single image of Meirelles with Phelippe Haagensen and Roberta Rodrigues. The rest of the results immediately jump to photocalls for his 2008 film Blindness, which also premiered at the festival. Looking around Getty Images, I also noted Meirelles’s dominant presence amongst two photocalls of him and co-director Katia Lund with the main cast. This nearly erases City of God’s own reception and success in images, as well as the acknowledgement and authorship of its greatest performers.

All the more for me to think about how much of a blind eye has been turned as a result of the film’s release representing these people, while also having them be known to the rest of the world as a part of its nation’s most cinematically vivid heartbeat. Maybe not its most faithful (and this does not dismiss the film’s ensurance of maintaining authenticity), but even with the establishment of Nos do Cinema, which gives Brazil’s marginalized poor the opportunity to learn and find careers in film (as well as raise social consciousness through film), this doesn’t take away from how I’ve come to perceive the cultural phenomena that ensued from the film’s release, let alone my love for the film itself. So while Meirelles and Lund’s conception of a non-for-profit media studies center may remain an important start in helping to stifle social hindrances that City’s aftermath reinforced, it does not immediately compensate for the same gash that it would succumb to as a result of creating, achieving, and therefore becoming the gold standard in Brazilian media.

Some of these actors have probably never had Black teachers, or were never consulted by Black doctors. With their bank accounts following the making of this film, they’ve probably never ended up with Black managers. And many still insist that in this country, all people have the same rights and opportunities. If that claims to be so, then where are they to be found?


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