The ‘Black Orpheus’ figure has been a recurring theme in Afro-Brazilian culture, being a South American depiction of the Greek myth of the Orpheus character. The Black Orpheus entered Brazil in the 1950s, when playwright Vinícius de Moraes released his play, Orfeu da Conceição, on the Brazilian stage (Dos Santos, 49). Later on, de Moraes’s work was adapted into a film by French director Marcel Camus (49). Present in both works was a dismissal of the reality of the lives of Afro-Brazilians, including their living conditions and their culture; the lack of context and preoccupation with artistic ideals in the work of de Moraes specifically informed the romanticization of Afro-Brazilians within the film by Camus (Naglib). The result is a sense of neocolonial occupation of Afro-Brazilian culture within both the play and the film, as they are both established on the idea of Black Orpheus. The European elements of the creation of the film and the false depiction of its Black actors enhance this idea of neocolonialism. Black Orpheus has been used as a subject for neocolonialism against the Black population of Brazil.
The beginning of the idea of Black Orpheus in Brazil can be found in de Moraes’s creation of the character for his 1956 script (Dos Santos, 49). In his work, which formed the basis for the later neocolonial film, de Moraes held the intention of creating a play specifically for Black actors in Brazil; however, the play was later denounced by Afro-Brazilian actor and director Abdias do Nascimento, who said the work’s contribution to social and racial struggles was minimal, as it presented a rosy view of the hardships of Black life in Brazil (Perrone). There is a continuous disconnect between de Moraes’s intentions and the actual reality of Orfeu da Conceição. De Moraes had also attempted to “universalize black music, breaking the limits of its popular realm, connected with carnival orgies and Afro-Brazilian religious trances, to raise it to the status of a sublime instrument of absolute love” (Naglib). But while he tried to universalize Black music, he effectively reduced it to a stereotype of what might be called ‘tribal music’ (Naglib). Though, according to Charles A. Perrone, de Moraes intended to call attention to questions of race in Brazil, he also created a narrative in which race was dismissed, as the characters “explicitly transcend their social determinations.
Through love and music, the black inhabitants of [Brazil] overcome poverty and isolation caused mainly by their colour. The intention was to transcend reality through the universality of the myth” (Naglib). De Moraes entirely reduces the actuality of the hardships of Black life in Brazil to a spectacle used in his play; the colonial notion is present in both this reductionism of Afro-Brazilian life, and in the attributing of the European idea of Orpheus to Afro-Brazilians as an emancipatory idea. Ultimately, while Afro-Brazilian culture is utilized within the narrative, it is not represented properly, and frequently lacks context.
De Moraes's failed attempt to portray Afro-Brazilian culture may not necessarily constitute a form of neocolonialism on its own, but his characterization of the Black personalities being liberated by their music, rather than them simply playing their music, is a form of reductionism which constitutes a sort of neocolonialism: the effective occupation of a cultural tradition of Afro-Brazilian culture by the former colonialists. However, this is only the case due to the lack of greater cultural context within the play; de Moraes wrote the play with the intention of showing the Black Orpheus character "transcend[ing] his condition and equal[ing] the gods" (Naglib). This is to say that de Moraes was at least trying to write a diverse and culturally analytical piece, but its shortcomings in that respect were the groundwork for the wholly neocolonialist piece that was the Camus adaptation (Naglib).
De Moraes's work is postcolonial only in that it superficially analyzes a tenant of a culture formerly colonized; he does not actual analyze the (post)colonial dimensions or effects on Afro-Brazilian music, which reduces it to a factor of his art, resulting in his own neocolonial occupation of that culture. The lack of greater cultural context in the original play then resulted in the caricature-like presentation of the Camus film adaptation, which is even more reductionist; where de Moraes reduced Afro-Brazilians to their music due to his lack of context, Camus profits off that lack of context by reducing the Black characters to an aesthetic of exoticism, thus continuing that neocolonialist feature of the postcolonial examination. In the failure to present the culture de Moraes was writing about properly, his work amounts to a colonial rendition of the culture in itself, which only further inspired Black Orpheus to be a neocolonial figure in the future. Essentially, de Moraes, despite any good intentions he had, failed to properly contextualize the culture he was presenting in the play, which led to backlash from that culture in Brazil, and a neocolonialist adaptation in the film that followed.
In 1959, the film Black Orpheus, directed by Frenchman Marcel Camus was released (Dos Santos, 49). The film was based upon de Moraes’s original play, and took great inspiration not only from its narrative, but also from its colonial intricacies: “Profiting from the absence, in the original drama, of contextualization, Camus’s film reduced the play to a caricature, turning the black presence in Rio de Janeiro into pure exoticism: a population who are poor but happy, sensual but naïve, who do not seem to worry about their social exclusion and dance samba all day long, even when they have to climb up the hill with a can of water on their heads.” (Naglib)
It is precisely this lack of context within the original play that informs the further misrepresentation of Afro-Brazilian culture within the film. When de Moraes saw the film, he denounced it as a drastic departure from his own work, and accused the film of presenting Brazil as merely exotic (Perrone). What is ironic about this denunciation from de Moraes is that he fails to recognize the romantic and exotic depiction which was present in his own work. It was his own miseducation on or misrepresentation of Afro-Brazilian culture as a “symbolic blackness not translated into any de-privileging of whiteness” that allowed the colonial artistry of Camus’s film to proceed (Perrone).
The film itself is entirely accurate to what de Moraes called it: a presentation of Brazil as merely exotic (Perrone). Indeed, in the same way that racial and social issues were erased within the play’s narrative, so too were they glossed over in the film adaptation: “poverty and social conflicts are enveloped in a romantic aura created by the narrative” (Dos Santos, 50). The lack of context in the play was used by Marcel Camus, as the film is merely a narrative which takes place in Brazil and exploits the ideas of Afro-Brazilians, without explaining or properly depicting their culture (Naglib). The film addresses the dispossession of the Black population of Brazil in an idealistic manner (Perrone). This is seen through the focus on music and romance which infiltrates the narrative and sedates any sense the audience may have about the poor living conditions of the characters.
The neocolonial reading of the film can be first informed by these misrepresentations of Afro-Brazilian people and culture, which reduce the reality of the situation to a surreal, or an ideal circumstance. Secondly, the film bears a neocolonial nature in its actual direction and production, which were almost entirely European; the French director and the Italian production amount to a European depiction of a supposedly Afro-Brazilian story which was originally written by a man of Portuguese descent (Naglib). The exploitative elements of production are present because of the fact that Brazil and its subculture were not accurately portrayed; because the film is Euro-based, the Euro-centricities are highly questionable due to the history of colonialism between Europe and South America (Perrone). The film is a neocolonialist work through its exploitation of Brazil for European gain: extracting raw materials of Brazilian imagery and culture for European consumption and profit.
Many Brazilians recognized, upon the film’s release, that it was neither a proper depiction of Afro-Brazilian culture, nor was it anything short of a neocolonial venture (Dos Santos, 52). “The issue of power in representations of nations is not a new question, and it has been a major issue in the postcolonial debate. Veloso has accurately called attention to the fact that, in contrast with the huge fascination that Camus’ Black Orpheus exerted over foreign audiences, the film was not received with enthusiasm in Brazil” (52). The distaste which Brazilians held for the film, and the positive reception of the film in foreign and colonial nations is demonstrative of the film’s neocolonial features, which include the extraction of raw materials in Brazil for consumption in the colonial countries. The wrongful view of Brazil which was shown in Black Orpheus was celebrated by European and North American audiences, which was a dramatic foreboding of the neocolonial nature of the film’s narrative being translated into actual neocolonial practice.
Placing the film into the context of other Brazilian movie ventures of the time, Black Orpheus was considerably out of place. In that the period from the mid-1950s through to the 1970s was a time where Brazilian films were enriched with Black themes (Naglib). While “Black Orpheus had an all-black cast…the film shows neither racial conflicts nor racial discrimination” (Dos Santos, 54). Therefore, it is out of place in the context of other Brazilian films of the time, which were inspired by the Left until its decline in the 1980s, which saw a depoliticizing of art (Naglib). Because of the film’s improper delineation of the culture, its European ties and profits, and its lack of positive reception consistent with other Brazil films, it is decidedly a neocolonialist film.
Black Orpheus is a work of neocolonialism in the sense that it continues the imperialist tradition of the world's Great Powers entering a poorer nation and extracting the raw materials for their own benefit. In this case, the raw materials were Black actors and actresses, Afro-Brazilian culture, and the land which was used for the film. Afro-Brazilian life was depicted through rose-coloured glasses, so that actual issues about race and poverty were not dealt with (Dos Santos, 50). By only showing romantic aspects of this culture, the filmmakers were playing to the interests of Westerners who would watch the film. The exploitation occurred in the false depiction of Afro-Brazilian culture by the European filmmakers, who were demonstrably ambivalent towards their art, and preoccupied with their neocolonial project.
It should also be considered that the depiction of Afro-Brazilian culture, romantic as it might have been, was demeaning in the sense that it made them out to be less than whites. As much as scenes of Carnival and music and the beautiful landscape may have been captivating to the film's white audiences, the depiction of characters as entirely hedonistic placed them relatively below the societal norms of whites in the West, thus opening the door for further neocolonial projects within Brazil, specifically in its Black population.
The role of the Black Orpheus character, through its renditions from de Moraes’s play to Camus’s film, has been to characterize Afro-Brazilian culture in false or absent contexts, and to delegitimize the Black population of Brazil by reducing them to objects of spectacle, who can be subjected to neocolonialism by other nations. The use of Black Orpheus in the country of Brazil has been to justify exploitation over a marginalized identity.
Nolan Long is a Canadian undergraduate student in political studies, with a specific interest in Marxist political theory and history.
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