3% is Netflix’s latest original series ordered up from Latin America, and the first from Brazil. Set in a dystopic future, the show’s title is taken from its central premise. Upon reaching age 20, young adults may choose to register for a series of tests known as the “Process.” Those who pass are admitted to life on an offshore society, a land of affluence and power. However, only 3% of candidates ever pass. Thus, the country is literally divided into the 97% who live on the “Inland” in abject poverty and dire circumstances and the 3% who live “Offshore” in wealth and opulence.
The history of Brazil has long been imagined as a tale of two countries. Beginning with the founding of the first colonial capital in Salvador da Bahia in the 1550s, the social and geographical worlds of the elite were constructed to be separate and spatially segregated from commoners. This was made most evident in the physical layout of the city, which was divided into two parts: an upper city that sat on a bluff overlooking the bay into the ocean, and a lower city down by the beach—directly underneath the slope of land that led down from the upper city. The upper city was designed for the wealthy, the most prominent and distinguished subjects of the empire, and all official buildings, palaces, plazas and so forth were constructed here. Of course, there was much mixing and coming back and forth between these two parts of the city, and thus the line between elite and common folk was nowhere near as rigid as Portuguese officials might have liked. Still, the distinct separation of the land into a terrain for the impoverished and a terrain for the affluent lent strong credence to the notion that colonial Brazil was a bifurcated society in regards to wealth and race.
Old ideas die hard, and there should be little surprise that the narrative of two Brazils outlived its colonial life and became attached to the history of modern Brazil. Well into the 1990s and even 2000s this explanation of income inequality in Brazil was alive and well. Thus, Americans traveling in the country who felt inclined to ask Brazilians about the problem of poverty would not infrequently hear that:
“Aqui no Brazil não temos classe media na verdade, so tem classe baixa e classe alta.” (Here in Brazil, we don’t have a true middle class, we only have a lower and an upper class).
Occasionally one would hear a mention of the “classe media-alta “(the “upper middle class). By and large, however, there was this narrative, and regardless of its veracity, it reflected not only many people’s despondency about inequality in the country but also a centuries old elite discourse about where people belonged across the landscape and in the distribution of power and wealth.
Now along comes 3% and takes this narrative to a dystopic context. Yet 3% doesn’t just take the Brazilian past and present into the future. If this were the only thing interesting about the show it would likely not sustain an audience’s interest for long. Instead, what 3% ends up doing is focusing not at all on the “Inland” or on the “Offshore” but on the individuals who are stuck going through the process. In other words, while ostensibly a show about the division between the 97% and the 3%, what the show ends up showing us are those trapped in the middle, those who are attempting to transition from one geographical and social demarcation for another one.
And here is where the show begins to take us into the kinds of character representations that few dystopian films and shows ever do. For as the opening scenes make clear, the inland is predominantly non-white, predominantly composed of either black, brown, or racially ambiguous subjects. Thus, as people march from their homes to take their place within the confined space where they become subject to the “Process” we see and begin to meet a medley of black and brown individuals who appear to be striving for a type of social and geographic mobility that may never materialize. Yet these characters also reflect and bring into relief the co-mingling of different types of black communities and black orientations to freedom. There is the character of Fernando, a wheelchair bound man whose father raised him to prepare for the “Process.” Yet his father is also a preacher who preaches the “Process” as a path of spiritual salvation for his congregation as well. Thus, not only race and disability, but race and charismatic Christianity are a part of the story.
While Fernando seems to want to succeed at the “Process” there is also Joana, perhaps the most dynamic character, who seems to be less interested in winning and more interested in escaping the conditions she has left behind. One gets the impression at times that she is fine being in the limbo space of the “Process” so long as she is not back inland. In other words, escaping from poverty is as important as escaping to affluence for this character. This dialectic between escaping from and escaping toward is precisely what Neil Roberts outlines as a particularly prescient feature of Frederick Douglass’s understanding of what running away from slavery to freedom meant. Might a character like Joana, then, help us think more sharply about the relevance of maroonage for both dystopian histories and histories of Afro-futurism? Then there is Nair, a senior member of the “Offshore” society council who wields influence and over the director of the “Process” yet also offers him friendly advice and ears on occasion. A disabled preachers’ son, a black woman maroon, and a corporate-like businesswoman… and these are not even all the characters of color the show offers.
3% doesn’t rewrite the genre of dystopian television, yet it does treat some familiar dystopian themes with fresh perspectives. Firstly, it takes colonial Brazilian discourses and approaches to geographical planning and carries them to a postmodern conclusion by creating a society where segregation and spatial separation is strictly enforced but mobility between the two remains possible in theory. Secondly, it gives us a show that intends to deal with a universal theme (the end of civilization) with more than one or two non-white actors in standout roles. Yet 3% also questions the notion that a world based on meritocracy could be better than a world based on “privilege.” No character is forced to take part in the “Process.” They all choose and those who succeed can then claim to have gotten where they are through “merit” rather than through privilege. Yet the percentage of those well off and the percentage of those living in misery does not change.
The show thus seems to reject the notion that the best solution to economic and racial inequality is to simply create more opportunities for individuals. I’m not sure yet whether the show will produce an alternative or if it only offers a critique, yet that in and of itself is one more reason to stay tuned.
Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.