Black Brazilian Media Producers and the Nomination of Marte Um
This post is part of our online roundtable on Reighan Gillam’s Visualizing Black Lives.
Marte Um (Mars One) was the Brazilian submission for consideration in the 2022 Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film Category. Marte Um is a moving film about the quotidian struggles of a lower middle-class Black family in a peripheral neighborhood in the city of Contagem as they make their way through life in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The film’s title stems from the story of the young Black boy protagonist who works to balance his dream of one day growing up to participate in an astronaut mission to Mars with the realities of his life in the periphery and familial expectations. While a handful of prior films submitted for consideration at the Oscars by Brazil’s Ministry of Culture have featured Black characters as central protagonists, such as Cidade de Deus (City of God), Orfeu, and Xica, Marte Um’s submission makes history as the first time the national submission has had a Black director at the helm of the film. Gabriel Martins, the director of Marte Um, explained the novelty of his film in a Sundance Film Festival interview, insisting, “This is not a very common film in Brazil. We are just recently starting to have Black directors, like myself, doing feature films. We don’t have a very large number in the history of Brazilian cinema…To have this family [in a film]…with these kinds of characteristics…should be something very common because this is a very common family in Brazil, but it’s not.” Martins points out an important contradiction of the Brazilian media in his reflection about the prevalence of Black families like one showcased in the film and the lack of media representations of the stories of families like this across Brazilian media. According to Brazil’s 2021 census data collected by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 56.1% of Brazil’s population is classified as negro or Black. Despite this majority in numbers, Black families and protagonists are still a minority in the stories told in Brazilian films, telenovelas, and other forms of media. When Black Brazilian characters are inserted into these predominantly white storylines across Brazilian media, their stories follow common tropes with little complexity. This insists upon the necessity of work from directors like Martins who don’t simply bring Black characters to the screen, but invokes their own life experiences as Black people to help bring forth the contours of the interior lives of Black characters. Black leadership and control drastically shift the way Black stories are told.
These questions of directorship and control over the Black narratives in the media are some of the central themes of Gillam’s incredible work Visualizing Black Lives: Ownership and Control in Afro-Brazilian Media. Gillam’s book clearly shows the careful work done by a long line of Black Brazilian cultural producers throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries to re-insert Black stories into Brazilian media. In her work, Gillam seeks to analyze the ways that Black media and cultural producers in Brazil work to bring forth what she calls “antiracist visual politics” (2). Gillam describes this form of politics as the ways in which “media producers and the visual media they create identify, challenge, or break with racist practices, ideologies, and structures” (2). Gillam begins her work by showing how this tradition of antiracist visual politics is not necessarily new, but has a long tradition within Black political and artistic movements. Her first chapter recounts the history of Black community mobilization from directly following the abolition of slavery in 1888 up until the 21st century. From Black newspapers and newsletters in Brazilian cities in the early 20th century, to Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) in the 1940s, to Black soul music dances in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during the 1970s, Gillam highlights how independent Black media and cultural production have been central to articulating the fight for Black rights and recognition from the Brazilian state. Gillam also highlights efforts by Black creatives, activists, and politicians to hold mainstream white-dominated media accountable to Brazil’s Black populations. Utilizing the new political moment following the end of the military dictatorship in the later 1980s, Black Brazilian artists, activists, and politicians pushed forth new tactics toward antiracist visual politics. They sued media conglomerates whose programs projected racist caricaturing of Black characters, supported Black creatives who sought to enter the world of mainstream media, and pushed forth new laws to tell the nuanced history of Black people in Brazil and throughout the world. Gillam shows that Black media creators worked both inside the mainstream Brazilian media as well as within independent Black cultural and media initiatives to push forth antiracist visual politics to agitate all spaces that they could access within Brazil.
Moving the focus from the mainstream to Black independent media, Gillam’s focus in her second chapter on independently financed and produced media endeavors shows the distinct visions possible when Black people produce the content, as well as the challenges that come with that level of ownership. In her second chapter, Gillam focuses on TV da Gente, a Black-owned TV channel founded in 2005. José de Paulo Neto, the founder of the network, aimed for TV da Gente (TV of the People) to produce antiracist content for the masses of Brazil. While the network was inspired by Black Entertainment Network (BET) from the United States, and formed a partnership with Robert Townsend’s Black Family Channel (BFC), Tv da Gente chose race-neutral language in the titling of its network to navigate racial discourse in Brazil that argued that television aimed at one racial group is racist (33). Yet, TV da Gente’s content remained centralized around themes affecting Black communities and its original content produced a much more diverse image of Brazil than any of the mainstream media channels at the time. Gillam shows how TV da Gente’s antiracist visual politics showed up in their content that refused the flat and caricatured construction of Black characters, hosts, and interviewees. These representations, Gillam argues, would not have been possible without the independent control that Neto held over the company. But despite the possibility for antiracist visual politics that this independence brought, it also led to TV da Gente’s eventual financial demise, as finding the continual backing for this antiracist content eventually became untenable. Ownership and control, as Gillam shows with TV da Gente, come with their own expensive pitfalls.
In the second portion of Gilliam’s book, she focuses on the specific ways that Black directors in Brazilian media projects shift the telling of Black stories. As Black director Jefferson Santos is quoted saying in the book, “The history of [in Brazil] Blacks was told by another group-not with their own hands. They told a story that we don’t believe” (75). In these instances of Black directorship that Gillam outlines, in her discussion of YouTube series Tá Bom Pra Você? (Is That OK With You?) in chapter 2, and of three independent Black films in chapter three, she argues that Black directors’ visions bring forth an image of Black life that contends with their experiences with racial oppression in Brazilian society. Gillam argues that Black directors invoke an “oppositional gaze” (77), borrowing from bell hooks, to refuse the racist construction of Black life in Brazilian mainstream media that downplays systemic racism and relegates Black people to marginal spaces without explanation as to why. Black directors instead build up Black characters as nuanced individuals navigating marginalization and the controlling images thrust upon them from childhood to adulthood.
Black Brazilian director Gabriel Martins’ film Marte Um did not end up making the shortlist for the Oscars Best International Feature Film Award. However, the film being chosen as Brazil’s national choice for submission is a feat for Martins and all Black Brazilian media creatives. Gillam’s careful work in Visualizing Black Lives shows us that this milestone would not have been possible were it not for the years of agitating by Black creatives and producers within different Brazilian media outlets. Martins’ tender and complex story about a young Black boy navigating dreams larger than the marginal space he is relegated to in Brazilian society pays homage to the traditions of Black media constructed through antiracist visual politics that came before it, many times with less funding and recognition. While international recognition might not have come through an Academy Award, this national recognition of Black media shows how far Black Brazilian media has come, and makes space to continue the battle for antiracist visual politics in the Brazilian media sphere.