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Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism

Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism

Using Brazilian films about slavery as case studies, Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism offers new insight into the deployment of cinematic narrative strategies to influence viewers and their conceptions of Brazilian national identity.

Series: Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture

January 2015
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
286 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos |

A unique contribution to film studies, Richard Gordon’s Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism is the first full-length book on Brazilian films about slavery. By studying Brazilian films released between 1976 and 2005, Gordon examines how the films both define the national community and influence viewer understandings of Brazilianness. Though the films he examines span decades, they all communicate their revised version of Brazilian national identity through a cinematic strategy with a dual aim: to upset ingrained ways of thinking about Brazil and to persuade those who watch the films to accept a new way of understanding their national community.

By examining patterns in this heterogeneous group of films, Gordon proposes a new way of delineating how these films attempt to communicate with and change the minds of audience members. Gordon outlines five key aspects that each film incorporates, which describe their shared formula for and role in constructing social identity. These elements include the ways in which the films attempt to create links between the past and the viewers’ present and their methods of encouraging viewers to identify with their protagonists, who are often cast as a prototype for the nation. By aligning themselves with this figure, viewers arrive at a definition of their national identity that, while Afrocentric, also promotes racial and ethnic inclusiveness. Gordon’s innovative analysis transcends the context of his work, and his conclusions can be applied to questions of national identity and film across cultures.




1. Influencing Understandings of Brazilianness in O Aleijadinho: Paixão, glória e suplício (2000)

2. Modeling National Identity on Religious Identity in Cafundó (2005)

3. Multiple, Provisional, National Identity Models in Quilombo (1984)

4. Alternative Understandings of the National Community in Chico Rei (1985)

5. Flirting with Viewers and Precariously Rethinking Brazilianness in Xica da Silva (1976)


Works Cited



RICHARD A. GORDON is Professor of Brazilian Studies and Spanish-American Literature and Culture and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute at the University of Georgia in Athens. He is the author Cannibalizing the Colony: Cinematic Adaptations of Colonial Literature in Mexico and Brazil.



This book grew out of a fascination with how cinema represents national communities and the impact of those depictions on audiences. I use the context of Brazilian films about slavery to investigate some of the ways in which films invite viewers to think differently about such communities and the potential effectiveness of those tactics, especially when viewers form part of the social group that the films cinematically sketch.

Typically, such collective cinematic portraits tend to clothe themselves in plausibility. After all, if viewers fail to recognize their own social group in a film, then the viewing experience will fail to activate in their minds how they understand that group. And if the social group is not salient for those watching the film, the film has little chance of causing viewers to revise what that group means to them.

At the same time, the kinds of cinematic interpretations of national groups that I consider in this book tend to diverge from what viewers have in mind about that group when the film begins. Of course, any fictional narrative, cinematic or otherwise, is to some degree a stylization of reality. However, I have in mind narratives that stretch an audience member’s reality in appreciable and coherent ways. These films present a tolerable disconnect―plausible, yet substantially different―between how a viewer understands the national community and the version communicated by a film.

Ultimately, the sorts of films that most interest me are ones that conceivably play a role in the sphere of national identity, regardless of whether those responsible for making the films intended to challenge existing viewer beliefs in this realm. With that in mind, I set out in Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism to identify potentially effective approaches to cinematically revising understandings of social groups, ones that promise to actually modify the social identity of the viewer. Ultimately, what is at stake in the exploration of these communicative dynamics of film is the capacity for audiovisual texts to reshape society.

In the chapters that follow, I evaluate the potential of Brazilian films about slavery released from 1976 through 2005 to revise the social identities of Brazilian audience members. I examine how the films define the national community and the qualities that promise to influence viewer understandings of Brazilianness. As we will see, a pattern emerges among this heterogeneous group of films, a sort of recipe for persuasively presenting to viewers a new way to conceive of one of their social groups. (It is worth making explicit that my approach presupposes that non-Brazilians like myself can identify and examine the elements of these cinematic invitations for Brazilian target audience members to rethink their social identities.) I will return to this pattern below, but for now I would say I believe that the various filmmakers have intuitively converged on a series of interconnected tactics that research in behavioral sciences suggest can be effective. I certainly do not claim that these films are explicit applications of scientific findings nor much less that they are diabolical attempts at mind control. However, I do attribute some general intentionality to the filmmakers and, by extension, to the films, as the volitional language that I sometimes use indicates. I believe that these films manifest what we might call a cinematic strategy with a dual aim: to upset ingrained ways of thinking about Brazil and to persuade those who watch them to accept a new way of understanding the national community.

It is my contention that we can derive from this study of Brazilian films about slavery and the interconnected ways that they might influence audiences some broad lessons about stories and their potential effects on people that transcend the context of this particular sort of narrative. It is true that some of the promising tactics I identify are tied to the fact that these are films and not novels, historical rather than present-day depictions, and considerations of a national social group rather than, say, a political or religious one. These are stories that focus on what it means to be part of a certain group, and that is something the films share with narratives produced in many other cultures. I hypothesize that these films exemplify common ways that narratives propose new understandings of social groups.

Following the lead of the research of Patrick Colm Hogan, I have chosen to approach the nature and the consequences of the connection between film and viewer and the social influence of audiovisual narratives―long studied from diverse disciplinary points of view―in dialogue with the field of social psychology. Research in social psychology provides those who study narrative with tools to describe in detail representations of the social identities of fictional characters. Likewise, this discipline helps us to begin to comprehend the ways in which the social identities of viewers may be malleable and by extension how a viewer’s identity might change when he or she is exposed to certain kinds of stimuli. Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism examines what social psychology and other areas of the cognitive sciences can teach us about the development and transformation of the ways in which citizens conceive of their national group.

My use of the concept of identity is based on social identity theory, initially developed in the 1970s by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner. In their seminal 1979 article on the topic they define social identity as “those aspects of an individual’s self-image that derive from the social categories to which he perceives himself as belonging” (16). Tajfel and Turner have in mind groups whose parameters are determined by religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality. They postulate that individuals associate these categories, or social groups, with “value-laden attributes and characteristics” (16). The way I understand “national identity”―and my examination of the interface between film and national identity―is compatible with these hypotheses. Rather than treating the concept of national identity as a fixed definition or reified truth that uniformly overlays a population, I use the term―along with “Brazilianness”―to indicate a set of characteristics that an individual who is conscious of being part of a social group associates with it at a given time. I say at a given time because a person’s understanding of the group is subject to change.

The qualities of the national community that different people have internalized will largely overlap. This superimposition would be a fundamental characteristic of what Benedict Anderson famously termed an “imagined community.” It stands to reason that the widespread coalescing of definitions of the national group among citizens―as well as individual divergences from prevailing views of the chief attributes of the social group―evolve in part from diverse efforts to sell certain ways of thinking about the nation. Such efforts include the sort of “foundational fictions”―or nation-building narratives―that Doris Sommer led us to appreciate better: political speeches, advertising, television, and movies. If the common perception is indeed true that cinema can sway the attitudes and beliefs of viewers, then it is worth our effort to examine how this engagement with audience members works. With this book I hope to make a concrete contribution to such efforts.

Recalling the terminology of Tajfel and Turner, here in Cinema, Slavery, and Brazilian Nationalism I consider how Brazilian films about slavery constitute proposals for the viewer to reevaluate part of his or her self-concept. Without claiming that these films actually exercised influence over Brazilian audiences, I attempt to understand better how the films invite individuals to rethink the collection of attributes they assign to the national category of their social identities. As I suggest above, my study focuses on films that generally but not radically contest dominant and presumably less desirable definitions of identity. These instances of cinematic nationalism celebrate their own, distinct versions of Brazil and Brazilianness.

My book focuses on five films from the past four decades: Xica da Silva (1976, director Carlos Diegues), Quilombo (1984, director Carlos Diegues), Chico Rei (1985, director Walter Lima Júnior), O Aleijadinho: Paixão, glória e suplício (2000, director Geraldo Santos Pereira), and Cafundó (2005, directors Paulo Betti and Clóvis Bueno). I would argue that the highly popular 1976 film Xica da Silva initiated a trend in Brazilian cinema that we reencounter in the four subsequent films. Notwithstanding the substantially different political and cultural contexts in which the films were produced, they coincide largely in the understanding of Brazilianness that they invite viewers to embrace, and they manifest remarkably similar persuasive overtures toward potential audiences.

The nuances of the definitions of Brazilianness in the films will emerge in the chapters, but I will synthesize here some of the common ground they share. Basically, the understanding of the Brazilian national group they promote consists of a cultural syncretism that combines elements associated with Europe and others associated with Africa. Their hybrid conception of national identity is essentially Afrocentric, though it also advocates for racial and ethnic inclusiveness. I examine how this cinematic corpus recalls the history of African slavery in Brazil, an institution that was abolished there in 1888, and how it urges viewers to rethink what it means to be Brazilian. The thematic approach of these films to rethinking national identity should not be surprising. Filmic depictions of enslavement evoke for audiences part of the genesis of social inequality in Brazil as well as the development of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. If historical films in general lend themselves to provoking reconsiderations of national identity, cinema about slavery intensifies this tendency. It is for that reason that the films I examine here offer a particularly apt context for an extended study of the relationship between cinema and social identity.

We might assume that the filmmakers whose work is the focus of this book recognized the fundamental role that the history and legacy of the African diaspora in Brazil have played in diverse and influential efforts to define national identity, such as those of Gilberto Freyre and Abdias do Nascimento. Whether intended or not, the vision of Brazilianness broadly shared by the five films can be seen as a mixture of Freyre’s and Nascimento’s understandings of the culturally syncretic nature of the Brazilian population.

Gilberto Freyre and Abdias do Nascimento represent clearly distinct but also interconnected positions on Brazilianness. Casa grande e senzala, published by Freyre in 1933 and later translated by Samuel Putnam as The Masters and the Slaves, was an attempt to better comprehend Brazil through a critical return to the era of slavery. Freyre writes, “In tropical America there was formed a society agrarian in structure, slave-holding in its technique of economic exploitation, and hybrid in composition, with an admixture of the Indian―and later of the Negro” (Masters and the Slaves 3). Freyre denounces some aspects of the sadism inherent in the system of slavery. He challenges the notion, grounded in biological determinism, that miscegenation led to degeneration. Nonetheless, he maintains the position that particular characteristics predominate among certain “races.” Freyre, challenging unfavorable views of miscegenation, advances a position rooted in the concept of whitening: “My insistence has, rather, another purpose: that of bringing out the fact that in the formation of Brazilian society there was not lacking a superior element recruited from the best families and capable of transmitting to its progeny major advantages from the point of view of eugenics and social heritage” (Masters and the Slaves 449). Throughout the book he emphasizes what he sees as the beneficial contributions of Africans and Afro-descendants in Brazil.

Nevertheless, his description of Brazilianness―which inevitably amounts to a prescription regarding how to understand it―has been criticized for being Eurocentric and paternalistic. Freyre assigns to the Portuguese Christians a qualitatively privileged role in his interpretation of Brazil’s cultural mixture. He writes elsewhere that former Portuguese colonies shared a diverse culture but one he describes as “under the dominance of Portugal and Christianity.” Freyre underscored but did not problematize what he posed as an imbalance in the mutual influence of cultures in contact―what Fernando Ortiz in 1940 would call "transculturation"―that resulted from colonization and the institution of slavery in Brazil:

Hybrid from the beginning, Brazilian society is, of all those in the Americas, the one most harmoniously constituted so far as racial relations are concerned, within the environment of a practical cultural reciprocity that results in the advanced people deriving the maximum of profit from the values and experiences of the backward ones. (Masters and the Slaves 83)

It would be hard to overemphasize the lasting social impact that Freyre's book had regarding the promotion of national pride based on the celebration of Brazil's cultural mixture, which is often characterized as the unproblematic combination of European, African, and indigenous contributions.

In the essays that comprise Nascimento’s 1980 book O quilombismo he contemplates slavery, among other issues, in order to reexamine Brazilian society, especially the Afro-Brazilian community. In his references to the formation and nature of Brazil and its population, Nascimento emphasizes the central importance of African rather than European contributions while still confirming a vision of Brazil as culturally hybrid. Partly in response to reyre―whose thinking he characterizes as “a gentle, sweet vision of relations between blacks and whites in the country”―Nascimento writes, “The biological and cultural mixture of Africa and Europe happened in all of the countries of the New World where there was slavery. Therefore, the tenacious persistence of African culture in Brazil and other parts of South America cannot be reasonably attributed to a supposed benevolence of the Aryo-Latinos, nor to their character or culture.”

In a text from 2000, “Pronunciamento de Abdias Nascimento," he recognizes multiple contributions to the national culture and advocates for a kind of multiculturalism: “Quilombismo seeks the construction of a State aimed at achieving the egalitarian coexistence of all sectors of the population, preserving and respecting the plurality of identities and cultural matrices.” In O quilombismo he communicates a national vision similar to the definition of the Dia da Consciência Negra (Black Awareness Day) articulated in 1978 by the Movimento Negro Unificado and quoted by Nascimento as the “'day of the death of the great black national leader, Zumbi, responsible for the first and only Brazilian attempt to establish a democratic society, that is, a free society in which all―blacks, Indians, and whites―realized a great political, economic, and social advancement.'”20 While Nascimento supports here what we might understand as a call for multiculturalism and acknowledges cultural hybridity in Brazil, he inverts Freyre’s Eurocentrism and advances a fundamentally Afrocentric view of the nation: “Blacks are far from being upstarts or outsiders: they are the very body and soul of this country.”

Nascimento’s discourse participates prominently in efforts among activists and social scientists to underscore the inequality and social exclusion―in addition to the injustices of the past―that certain positions on Brazilianness have perhaps inadvertently hidden and, as a consequence, facilitated. Chief among such influential ideas are some that derived from Freyre, such as the concept of Brazil’s “racial democracy,” and continue to flourish in Brazil. Nascimento and others have challenged what is, in the end, the Eurocentric nature of the Freyrean syncretic understanding of national identity in spite of the advance that it represented at the time. In O quilombismo Nascimento promotes pride in Afro-descendant Brazil in his attempt to expose and rectify social injustice in the country, yet his Afrocentrism avoids being racially or ethnically exclusive. In his explanation of the notion of quilombismo he emphasizes equality and inclusion of all social groups: “1. Quilombismo is a political movement of black Brazilians; its objective is the implantation of a National Quilombista State inspired by the model of the Republic of Palmares. [. . .] 2. The National Quilombista State has as its foundation a free, just, egalitarian, and sovereign society. Quilombista democratic egalitarianism should be understood in relation to race, economic status, sex, community, religion, politics, [and so forth].” In his "Pronunciamento" he reiterates that quilombismo is a national concept: “It is a proposal not only for Afro-descendant peoples in the diaspora but also for the Brazilian Nation.”

In spite of the distinct versions of Brazilianness that they advance, I see the positions of Freyre and Nascimento, much like those of the films I study in this book, as proposals for all Brazilian citizens―regardless of their conscious affiliations with any racial, ethnic, or other social groups―to associate certain attributes and values with the national group. Beyond this rhetorical coincidence between the films and these two intellectuals, traces of the ideas of both or engagement with related notions can be found in all of the films. All the same, the collective posture of this set of films on Brazilianness resonates, albeit in a less radical way, with how Nascimento questions and, in my view, reconfigures some Freyrean concepts or ones connected with the work of Freyre. Although the films respond in various ways to their different political contexts, the overarching qualities the films share in terms of conception of the national group are less a function of specific political climates than of the ongoing ideological disputations that I have condensed here into Freyre and Nascimento.

As with the definitions of Brazilianness offered by the films, the details of the films’ shared persuasive engagement with viewers are best appreciated in the close readings of the chapters. In this analysis of Brazilian slavery films I set out to identify and examine aspects of the films that cluster into several interrelated, common tactics that I have delineated in order to understand better the role Brazilian historical cinema plays in grappling with race and ethnicity and in proposing alternative definitions of national identity. I presume that these films have gravitated toward similar means of communicating with those who will see them in part through mutual influence but not only for that reason. As I submitted at the beginning of this introduction, those responsible for planning, producing, and promoting these cinematic narratives surely drew on analogous strategies due to equivalent intuitions. I would argue that they favored techniques they felt had the greatest probability of modifying concepts of Brazilianness that viewers possessed before watching the films.

I would like to propose one possible way of delineating a common approach these five films take toward communicating with audience members (figure 0.1). I have observed five fundamental and interconnected elements in each of the films that, in my view, interact so as to encourage viewers to rethink their social identities: (1) incorporating clues that link the past portrayed in the film to the present of viewers, thus suggesting for them the current relevance of the story being told; (2) calling attention to the nation and treating it favorably, thus encouraging viewers to consider their national group as relatively more important than other social groups to which they belong, such as ones defined on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion; (3) casting the film’s protagonist as a national metaphor and a prototype for the national population; (4) suggesting that a viewer identify with this national representative in such a way that he or she ends up being what I call a cinematic self, a model for how viewers conceptualize part of their self-concepts, specifically here the national category of their social identities; and (5) strategically shaping this proxy for the nation and the national population. The first four aspects combine to create a presumably effective vehicle of influence; the fifth element articulates a revised definition of the national group that audiences assimilate.

In chapter 1, “Influencing Understandings of Brazilianness in O Aleijadinho: Paixão, glória e suplício (2000),” I examine the film that revisits the life of an eighteenth-century artist from Minas Gerais, Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho (Little Cripple), who has long been a source of national and regional pride. The film traces the character’s trajectory from his birth to an enslaved mother through his rise to artistic esteem and growing political engagement to his painful deterioration and death. Like the other slavery films examined here, Aleijadinho taps into the historical figure’s legendary status as a catalyst for persuasively redefining Brazilianness through him.

In the chapter I tease out this first version of the five films’ generally shared definition of Brazilianness, and I introduce each of the five ingredients that constitute what I see as the main means through which all of the films invite individuals to revise their definitions of national identity. While in the other four productions one or two of the elements are salient and the others relatively muted―this is particularly the case with the oldest film, Xica da Silva―Aleijadinho fully exploits all of the tactics. The film lends itself for this reason to an initial exploration of cinematic strategies employed in the films with the potential to change conceptions of social identity. In my analysis of Aleijadinho’s implementation of the five tactics I discuss each of them in light of research in social psychology and other areas. The chapter constitutes the first test of my hypothesis that these films coalesce around a potentially effective strategy for influencing understandings of national identity. Each of the remaining chapters tests the broad preliminary findings in the first chapter and expands and refines my understanding of the five communicative components.

Chapter 2, “Modeling National Identity on Religious Identity in Cafundó (2005),” focuses on the more recent story of João de Camargo, the charismatic founder of a syncretic church in the interior of the state of São Paulo. The film covers the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. Legendary in his own right, the protagonist Camargo probably also evoked for Brazilian audiences the well-known Antônio Conselheiro, leader of a religious community at Canudos in the interior of Northeast Brazil at the turn of the twentieth century. Conselheiro is the subject of Euclides da Cunha’s book Os sertões as well as the inspiration for a variety of cultural products over the years. Cafundó crafts the narrative of a religious community that exists outside predominant political structures―in contrast with Aleijadinho, which realizes its revision of identity in an urban context―and casts that entity as a new, possible Brazil. Cafundó expresses pride in that protonation rather than in Brazil as it is.

The dislocation of the film’s identity experiment to a different and conceptually unencumbered space in order to propose a new definition of Brazilian national identity makes special sense for Cafundó. The isolation of Camargo’s church helps to counter the challenge deriving from the film taking place in modern Brazil, after the abolition of slavery in 1888, in a setting that is so close to that of viewers that an entirely new understanding of the nature of the national group might otherwise be hard to sell. The colonial-era setting of the other four films makes the task of envisioning what Brazil could and should look like more natural. Because there is no independent Brazil in those films, any aspect of the colonized sphere could be cast as a seed of a future independent nation.

Quilombo, the subject of chapter 3, “Multiple, Provisional, National Identity Models in Quilombo (1984),” also offers a new space and treats it as a tabula rasa on which to sketch a fresh vision of national identity. The tale of a maroon community, or Quilombo, in Northeast Brazil in the mid-seventeenth century, Quilombo coincides with Cafundó in that it likewise conceives of a new and improved Brazil physically set apart from the center of colonial political power in Recife, a capital we might consider an analog of present-day Brazilian society as it is. Both of these films portray utopias that model the qualities the national population should embrace. What stands out in Quilombo and what I focus principally on in the chapter is the way the film gradually builds a stable proposal for how to reconceive Brazilianness. Importantly, the film avoids communicating this vision of the national group through a single vehicle as is generally the case in Aleijadinho and Cafundó. Instead, Quilombo rotates among several characters the status of national stand-in and model of social identity. In this chapter I explore Quilombo’s engagement with each of the five shared persuasive components, but I stress in particular how the film uses multiple cinematic selves as well as the potential effectiveness and implications of this strategy.

Cafundó's and Quilombo’s tactic of geographical distance as an approach to redefining the national community contrasts with the strategies of Chico Rei, which I examine in chapter 4, “Alternative Understandings of the National Community in Chico Rei (1985).” The choice of this film and of Aleijadinho and Xica da Silva to situate their reconsiderations of identity in the context of colonial society might suggest that they are involved in imagining how current understandings of identity might be rearranged, assuming that viewers infer an analogy between colonial and contemporary Brazil, as I believe is likely. These three films propose, in this sense, a reconfiguration of current, prevailing understandings of Brazilianness and suggest that all the necessary ingredients for the understanding of identity that they favor are already present in the existing political context. They seem to imply that all that needs to be done is to select exemplary figures and through them to remold what is already there. Chico Rei champions a conciliatory character, Galanga, a historically grounded African man of the eighteenth century who gained his freedom from enslavement in Brazil by working within the legal and social confines of the colony. The film contrasts the approach of the protagonist, who comes to be known as Chico Rei, with the strategies of his son, Muzinga, who escapes from captivity and joins a Quilombo. The film shows respect for the son’s refusal to seek change from within a system of repression, yet it reserves for Chico Rei the status of viable model of reform and, more broadly, Brazilianness.

Chapter 5, “Flirting with Viewers and Precariously Rethinking Brazilianness in Xica da Silva (1976),” treats a highly popular film that I believe influenced all of the other films I study in the book. Xica da Silva inaugurated aspects of the sort of Afrocentric, syncretic, racially inclusive understandings of Brazilianness that the other four films articulate less ambiguously. It also manifests kernels of the persuasive tactics that I see the other films carrying out more fully. Xica da Silva narrates part of the life of another eighteenth-century historical figure who, like Aleijadinho and Chico Rei, lived in Minas Gerais. During the course of the film, the protagonist gains freedom, wealth, and power and eventually loses all but her liberty when the woman’s protector and lover is recalled to Portugal. In this chapter I trace several distinct stages in the character’s development that correspond to shifts in her social status. I examine the degree and manner in which Xica da Silva―in each of these stages and in the film as a whole―might have constituted an appealing means to offer a revised understanding of Brazilianness.

Taken together, these five films provide an opportunity to comprehend Brazilian cinema’s role, over three decades, in intervening among the various forces that swayed how citizens conceive of Brazilianness. More broadly, the films enable us to learn about the ways narratives invite those who consume them to modify their self-concepts.



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