Film in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Film in Latin America and the Caribbean

Cinema has played an important role in the representation and diffusion of culture throughout the Americas since its arrival at the turn of the nineteenth century. Filmmakers have utilized the silver screen for a variety of purposes, from propaganda to entertainment to raising social consciousness. As in other areas of American life, Africans and their descendants have played significant roles in the development of the cinematic tradition in Latin American and the Caribbean. They have made important contributions as scriptwriters, producers, editors, directors, researchers, and actors despite discriminatory practices that limited their access and opportunities. At the same time, however, weak Latin American and Caribbean economies have provided few opportunities for filmmakers of all ethnicities.

Despite these obstacles, Brazil and Cuba, two countries with significant black populations, have produced scores of feature films that have garnered national and international praise. In addition, experimental and documentary filmmakers in Latin American have made a number of important works that speak to national and local experiences. Unfortunately, even high-quality Latin American and Caribbean films cannot attract the audiences that the highly advertised Hollywood blockbuster films often do. Nor has Latin America or the Caribbean developed internationally influential black directors. This has little to do with talent and much to do with language barriers, access to global communication systems, and limited publicity.

An assessment of film production in three broad geocultural divisionsBrazil; the Caribbean Basin; and Mexico and Spanish South and Central Americawill help one understand the varied experience of the people of the African diaspora in film. Shaped by international and national social, political, and aesthetic trends, cinema has nonetheless contributed to pan-African consciousness. Indeed, feature films and documentaries about black culture and history have also played an important role in raising the awareness of the impact of the African diaspora throughout the Americas.


Latin America's largest economy and most populous country is also home to the region's largest African-American population (depending on the method of organization of data). Even conservative statistics show more than fifteen million black Brazilians, whose contributions have been more visible in popular culture than in other areas. Their influence in Brazil's film industry began in the early stages with personalities such as director-writer-actor Benjamin de Oliveira. In general, however, Afro-Brazilians constitute a small fraction of the working directors, producers, technical staff, and actors in the country. Black directors and writers have suffered from limited access to federal, state, and private funds necessary to make films in Brazil. Nevertheless, Brazil has produced several important directors, although none have produced a body of work that allows comparison to North American directors. The Afro-Brazilian writer, producer, and director José Cajado Filho (19121966) worked on a number of important films in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although the work of other black directors, such as Odilon López and Waldir Onofre (b. 1934), deal more specifically with racial issues.

Influenced by the theatrical revue and popular music and culture, Brazilian film production began at the turn of the nineteenth century and continued into the 1930s, under the watchful eyes of President Getúlio Vargas. In the 1940s, film entrepreneurs created the Hollywood-like film production companies, Cinédia and Vera Cruz. However, they soon fell into bankruptcy because they lacked the Hollywood distribution apparatus. The 1950s saw the emergence of a new cinema movement, cinema novo, that was interested in film with social relevance at a time when Brazil was experiencing rapid economic expansion under President Juscelino Kubitschek (1955-1960). In search of their national roots, many of the films looked at the ethnic and social groups often denied visibility in the official neo-colonial history, including Afro-Brazilians.

In 1969, the state created the first government film agency, EmbraFilme, that was responsible for financing, distributing, and promoting national films throughout the Brazil. In the 1980s, Brazilian film production continued to expand, due in part to its international recognition and the increase in sales receipts. This allowed the government film agency EmbraFilme to expand its operations, a trend that continued until the Collar presidency's budget cuts, which badly hurt film production from 1992-1996. Since then, Brazilian cinema has experienced a renaissance, and Afro-Brazilians are playing an important part in it.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the São Paulo group Dogma Feijoada (Bean Stew Dogma), led by Jeferson De and other black filmmakers, including Noel Carvalho, Billy Castilho, Rogério, Daniel Santiago, and Agenor Alves, aims to create a black cinema that both represents the multiplicity of the black experience and speaks directly to black audiences. Although inspired by the Danish group Dogme 95 and black American directors, Dogme Feijoada is firmly rooted in the Brazilian experience. Jeferson De's Distraida para a morte (Distracted to Death, 2001) and Ari Cândido Fernandes's O Rito de Ismael Ivo (The Ritual of Ishmael Ivo, 2003) are two of the first films that represent Dogma Feijoada's goals. In addition, a number of documentaries have been made by Afro-Braziliansfrom Zózimo Bulbul to Joel Zeto Araújoon topics from slavery to modern life.

Black actors and actresses have played important roles in both the cinema and in television series and novelas, or soap operas. The pioneering work of Benjamin de Oliveira, one of Brazil's first clowns and a silent movie actor, leads the list of talented Afro-Brazilians, which includes the writer and producer Haroldo Costa, veteran actors and actresses such as Léa Garcia, Ruth de Souza, Milton Gonçalves, Zezé Motta, as well as younger artists, such as Lázaro Ramos, Taís Araújo, and the young actors and actresses from the Rio de Janeiro theatrical group Nós do Morro.

Despite the growing opportunities, Brazilian feature films about race and the African diaspora are largely shaped by an eclectic group of white filmmakers, many of whom (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Carlos "Cacá" Diegues, Hector Babenco, Fernando Meirelles, Helvécio Ratton, and others) have garnered critical acclaim for their work. Major Brazilian films on race and on black Brazilians can be divided into four major categories: (1) slavery; (2) miscegenation and syncretism; (3) popular culture and celebration; and (4) class dynamics and marginality. Some films overlap into various categories.

Few Brazilian films on slavery were made before the 1950s, with the exception of Antônio Marques Filho's 1929 A Escrava Isaura (The Slave Isaura), based on Bernardo Guimarães 1875 novel of the same name (and remade in 1949 by Eurides Ramos). A Escrava Isaura is emblematic of a host of films that purportedly support black causes, such as abolition, while not necessarily embracing the notion of black liberation and self-sufficiency. To Guimarães and other abolitionists, the case of Isaura is tragic because she is well educated and "looks white," sentiments that allow Brazilians of the time, and consequently the film to sidestep issues of black suffering and liberation.

Some three decades later Sinhá Moça (The Landowner's Daughter, 1953) and João Negrinho (1958) provided viewers with more complex representations of abolition. Based on the nineteenth-century work by Maria Dezonne Pacheco Fernandes, Sinhá Moça, directed by Tom Payne and Oswaldo Sampãio, is a dramatic period piece about the abolition of slavery, although the film centers on the conflict between a slave-owning father and his abolitionist daughter. At the same time, the film offers complex views and performances by many talented actors, particularly Ruth de Souza (b. 1921), one of the pioneers of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) founded by Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento. The film also received a number of important national and international awards.

The Afro-Brazilian response to slavery is the focus of three of Cacá Diegues's (b. 1940) films: Ganga Zumba (1964), Xica da Silva (1976), and Quilombo (1984). A member of the socially committed Cinema Novo movement, Diegues has treated black themes and employed black actors and actresses throughout his career. Ganga Zumba, which relies heavily on historical sources as well as myth, lore, and fantasy, recreates the life of Ganga Zumba, a nephew of Zumbi, the famous leader of Palmares, the seventeenth-century escaped-slave community turned republic. The history and dynamics of Palmares is the subject of Diegues's Quilombo. Xica da Silva, on the other hand, tells the story of the mulatto slave Xica (played by the black actress Zezé Motta) and her alliance with João Fernandes, a Portuguese diamond official who was sent to Vila Rica (Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais) in the eighteenth century. The film emphasizes the plight of black women held in bondage although it utilizes the stereotype of the sensual black woman in a problematic manner. At the same time the film illustrates the limits of sexual union in achieving social ascent. Also important in this category is Walter Lima Junior's Chico rei (Chico the King, 1985). The film chronicles the capture of Galanga, a member of a royal Congo family, his baptism in Brazil as Francisco (Chico), and his eventual liberation and challenge to the colonial government.

While slavery and abolition constitute an important theme in Brazilian historical and cultural studies, many more films have explored issues of miscegenation and syncretism, two forces which many scholars believe have been fundamental to the Brazilian character. At the same time, this reality has often been misused to promote patriotism and deflect attention from social change. Thus, it is not surprising that many Brazilian films treat miscegenation or syncretism as a de facto part of the Brazilian cultural landscape, while others focus on the problems and challenges of syncretism and miscegenation more explicitly, as in the case of Xica or A Escrava Isaura.

The complexities of miscegenation and whitening is highlighted in Macunaíma, Joaquim de Pedro Andrade's 1969 satirical adaptation of Mario de Andrade's work of the same name. The film employs satire to provide insight into racial attitudes and the desire of many Brazilians to become white, but it is not as critical as the U.S. film Imitation of Life (1934, remade in 1959), whose African-American female protagonist attempts to pass for white.

Rather than focusing explicitly on race, as in the U.S. film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), directed by Stanley Kramer, Brazilian films often present racial inter-mingling and mixing with class complexities. Films such as Carlos Manga's 1953 Dupla de Barulho (A Great Pair), with Grande Otelo and Oscarito, and Waldir Onofre's As aventuras amorosas de um padeiro (The Amorous Adventures of a Baker, 1977) lighten interracial tensions with humor. Furthermore, Onofre's film about the adventures of two working-class men and a white woman from the middle class is more about class dynamics in a Rio neighborhood.

Still, as in U.S. movies such as Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991), and following in the tradition of Diegues' Xica, a certain fatalism often dooms interracial relations in Brazilian films, despite historical examples to the contrary. This is the case in Odilon Lopez's Um e Pouco, Dois e Bom (One Is Not Enough, Two Is Good, 1971), in the more complex Tenda dos Milagres (Tent of Miracles, 1977), and in Na boca do mundo (In the Mouth of the World, 1979). Antonio Pitanga's In the Mouth of the World centers on a love triangle among a black worker (Antônio), a white bourgeois woman (Clarisse) with whom he has an affair, and his mulatto girlfriend (Terezinha). Race and class intersect with urban and rural tensions in this film, which ends in the death of the main character and a surprising alliance between Clarisse and Terezinha.

The portrayal of intra-class racism and prejudice is not as pervasive in Brazilian films as they are in American films. Nelson Pereira dos Santos exposes this issue (among many) in Tenda dos Milagres through a complex plot that deals with middle-class intermarriage and the obsession of a white professor who tries to hide his African ancestry. Paradoxically, the film also celebrates miscegenation, rather than black rights and liberation, as a solution to racisman ideology that has its roots in the nineteenth century and that gained an internationally renown spokesmen in Gilberto Freyre and Jorge Amado (the author of the novel on which the film is based). While literature and cinematographic texts have historically focused on alliances of European men and women of color, Carlota Camuarti's 1996 dramatic farce Carlota Joaquina departs from this trend in its depiction of Infanta Carlota Joaquina, who is lured by the Brazilian racial mixing experience and takes a black lover.

Religious miscegenation or syncretism is treated in a number of Brazilian films, including Tenda dos Milagres, Glauber Rocha's Barravento (1962), Anselmo Duarte's O Pagador de Promesas (The Given Word, 1962), and Nelson Pereira dos Santos' O Amuleto de Ogum (Ogum's Amulet, 1974). O Pagador de Promesas and Tenda dos Milagres focus directly on syncretism and illustrate the tensions and prejudice of white society, while Barravento examines the Afro-Bahian religion Candomblé on its own terms, although not without exposing the limitations of organized religion. In O Amuleto de Ogum, Pereira dos Santos' explores the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, while exposing racism and class prejudice in a small town in the Northeast. The Brazilian-Nigerian coproduction of A Deusa Negra (1978), directed by the Nigerian filmmaker Olá Balogún, provides a rare cross-Atlantic glimpse into the religious and familiar continuity through the Yoruba-based religion Candomblé. Samba da Criação do Mundo (Samba of the Creation of the World, 1979) attempts to give a Yoruba rendition of the world's creation and Afro-Brazilian religious values, themes covered in a number of documentaries and shorts from Brazil, the United States, and Europe.

African religious practices such as Candomblé and Umbanda have not only had an impact on religion in Brazil but also on other national and local customs from dance and music to dress and food. In the silent film era, Afro-Brazilian musicians such as Pixinguinha, Donga, and others played live music during screenings. Others composed and played in orchestras for the carnival revue films of the 1930s and 1940s and the melodramas and slapstick comedies called chanchadas that showcased the talents of Grande Otelo, one of the pioneering Afro-Brazilian performers. Afro-Brazilian musicians have also been at the center of a number of documentaries, such as Leon Hirszman's 1969 Nelson Caviquinho and Andrucha Waddington's Viva São João! (Long Live St. John!, 2002), which features singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil.

Although filmmakers recognized the contributions (if not central role) of blacks to Brazilian popular music, they were visibly absent from the 1930s carnival films such as Alô Alô Carnaval and Alô Alô Brasil. This changes somewhat with the making of Luis de Barrow's Samba em Berlim (1943), featuring Grande Otelo and Nilo Chagas, and other films such as Rio Zona Norte (1957), with Grande Otelo, Angela Maria, and a host of other Afro-Brazilian performers. For its time, the internationally acclaimed French production of Marcel Camus's Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959), which was based on the Vinicius de Moraes play Orfeu da ConceIção, was a rare assembly of talented black actors and performers. Only in 1999 did Carlos Diegues create his own rendition of the play, simply titled Orfeu, starring Afro-Brazilian Tony Garrido from the musical group Cidade Negra.

Black poverty and marginality also represent major themes in Brazilian cinema. While music, revelry, and religion constituted important aspects of the realist dramas of Cinema Novo, black discontent and revolt were essential in films such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos's Rio 40 graus (1955) and Rio Zona Norte (1957) as well as Roberto Farias's 1962 Assalto ao trem pagador (Assault on the Pay Train), based on an actual 1960 train robbery. Despite the title, Farias provides an engrossing story about the relationship among the multiracial robbers, interweaving issues of race and class. Tião, one of the black thieves, stands in contrast to Grilo Peru, one of the white robbers, who not only iterates the only explicit racial slur in the film but also is able to spend his money conspicuously without drawing attention to himself. Assalto ao trem pagador boasts a talented multiracial cast that brought the film more critical acclaim than others films dealing with the inhabitants of the favelas (shantytowns, or slums). Also worthy of mention is Leon Hirszman's Eles Não Usam Black-Tie (1981), which deals with labor conflicts in São Paulo. Black characters play principal roles in the film, but race does not necessarily play a factor in the drama.

The twenty-first century has brought a host of impressive films that focus critically on poverty and margin-alityand on black responses to them. Helvecio Ratton's Uma onda no ar (2002) presents the development and triumph of an alternative radio station (Radio Favela) created by four Afro-Brazilians in the favelas of Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais. Hector Babenco's 2003 production of Carrindiru, an epic on the São Paulo prison system of the same name, continues in the tradition of the politically committed movies of Cinema Novo. New directors such as Fernando Meirelles with his two films Domésticas (Maids, 2000) and Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002), and the New Yorkbased Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz's Madame Satã (2002), show the influence of Hollywood while appealing to a new generation of Brazilian filmgoers. In the tradition of Brazilian film, race and class are intimately interconnected, but the fact that the main characters in all three films are marginalized black characters indicates the need to explore, as Dogma Feijoada intimates, more diverse experiences of Afro-Brazilians.

Many Brazilian documentary filmmakers have exposed contemporary issues and problems related to the Afro-Brazilian world in ways that feature films have not. Compared to U.S. filmgoers, contemporary Brazilian documentaries have garnered a massive following, thanks, in part, to film festivals in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Recife, and Miami that showcase Brazilian feature films and documentaries. The Bank of Brazil Cultural Center's "It's All True" festival and the Moreira Salles Institute's festival, which focus exclusively on documentaries, have been instrumental in providing spaces for this genre.

The black filmmaker Zózimo Bulbul's 150-minute film Aboilção (Abolition, 1988), which often meanders, nonetheless represents an important document that regis-tered a personal perspective on the celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Sections of the 1992 release of Orson Welles's unfinished It's All True (which gave the name to the Bank of Brasilsponsored festival), deals with black influences in Brazil in the 1930s. Of the many important documentaries to come out of Brazil at the beginning of the twenty-first century, two deserve special mention. Joel Zito Araujo's A negacão do Brasil (Denying Brazil, 2000) examines the struggles of black actors in Brazil, particularly how racial taboos, prejudice, and stereotypes have limited their roles in the television industry. The riveting Ônibus 174 (2002) explores the tragic life of Sandro do Nascimento, a young black man who hijacked a bus in Rio de Janiero in June 2000. The film's innovative analysis interconnects issues of race, poverty, the media, the state, and police brutality Some of these issues are also present in New York-based filmmaker Tania Cypriano's powerful Oda Ya! Vida com AIDS (2001) which focuses on how AIDS has effected the black community, as well as education and the positive celebrations of human sexuality.

The aforementioned feature films and documentaries indicate that Brazilian cinema has experienced important social advancements. Yet, black filmmakers and actors remain underrepresented. This is particularly troubling in films made for television, as Brazilians have more access to this medium than to the cinema. In many ways, however, the diversity of black characters and themes present in Brazilian cinema is richer than in any other American nations.

The Caribbean Basin

Despite their shared history and parallel African influences, the multilingual and politically independent nations of the Caribbean Basin (including the coastal regions of South and Central America) stand in contrast to Portuguese-speaking Brazil, which is unified both politically and linguistically. The population of Brazil is greater than the population of all the nations of the Caribbean Basin combined. Moreover, of all the Caribbean nations, Cuba is the only country that has developed an important film industry, and that only occurred after 1960. The former French, English, and, to a lesser extent, Dutch island coloniesall with black majoritieshave nonetheless inspired foreign filmmakers. The islands have provided exotic backdrops to a host of Hollywood films, from The Satanic Dr. No (1963) to the cross-diaspora but also exoticizing How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Examples that explore the autonomous cultures of the Caribbean include Robert Rossen's Island in the Sun (1957); Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn! (1969), loosely based on the events of the Haitian Revolution; and a host of indigenous, European, and North American documentaries.

The French and English Caribbean have produced few feature films, although the Jamaican Perry Henzel's 1972 movie The Harder They Come helped to bring images of the poor black neighborhoods of Kingston to the silver screen along with the vibrant reggae music that has inspired the world. The French Caribbean has produced a number of important filmmakers including the Haitians Raoul Peck (Haitian Corner, 1988; Lumumba, 2000), Ras-soul Labuchin (Anita, 1982), and the prolific Christian Lara from Guadeloupe. The Martinican director Euzhan Palcy's quiet portrayal of poverty and the lack of educational opportunities in a Martinican neighborhood in Rue Cases Negres (Sugar Cane Alley, 1983) brought her wide acclaim, ultimately leading to work in Hollywood on A Dry White Season (1989), a social drama set in South Africa. Guadeloupe-born Christian Grandman examines relationships among a number of marginalized Caribbean characters in a town outside of Pointe-a-Pitre in his 2000 film Excluídos (Tètt Grenné).

Outside of Cuba, the making of feature films in the Spanish Caribbean is rare. Some exceptions include Efraín López Neris's A Life of Sin (1993) the story of the Puerto Rican prostitute Isabel la Negra (filmed in English); Leon Ichaso's Piñero (2001), the story of the Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero, featuring black Nuyoricans who knew Piñero; or Angel Muñiz's Nueba Yol (1996), which was inspired by the immigrant experience of Dominicans in New York.

Many talented Caribbean actors have also played a vital role in the region's cultural production, but the majority are not known internationally. Those who have been able to cross over to international markets are often limited to specific language markets. This is the case with actors who work on productions directed by filmmakers such as Felix de Rooy from Curação and Pim de la Parra from Suriname (both are based in Holland). English-speaking actors with Caribbean connections, such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, have also had an important impact on films in the United States in a variety of ways, although the same cannot be said of talented AfroPuerto Ricans, Afro-Dominicans, or Afro-Cubans.

Filmmaking in Cuba

Before 1959, Cuban film production had been irregular and uneven. After the success of the Castro-led revolution, Cuba's film production was aided by the creation of the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), and the Cuban Broadcasting Institute. Cubans engaged intellectuals throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in forging a new Latin American cinema, inspired by revolutionary ideals. They created what the filmmaker Julio García Espinosa, one of the founders of ICAIC, described as an "imperfect cinema"which by its nature was supposed to be anti-Hollywood. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the ICAIC produced a steady stream of feature films, documentaries and docudramas as well as animated and more experimental film genres. Afro-Cubans have helped shaped the Cuban film industry, although, as in Brazil, they are not as visible as one might expect.

Directors such as Sergio Giral (b. 1973) and Sara Gomez (19431974), two well-known directors from the early era of ICAIC, have been followed by an enthusiastic group of young directors and writers, including Gloria Rolando, Tony Romero, and Rigoberto López. Actors and actresses have been equally important in bringing Cuban stories to the silver screen. Actresses such as Adelá Legrá, Assenech Rodriguez, and Daisy Granados (b. 1942) have played multiple roles in Cuban film since the 1960s. Granados, considered by many to be the grande dame of Cuban cinema, often plays roles in which racial identity is ambiguous or seemingly unimportant, although she also played the mulatta title character in Cecilia (1982). Other Afro-Cuban veteran actors include Mario Balmaseda, Miguel Benavides, and Tito Junco. Unfortunately, the Cuban economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 have meant that many young would-be actors and filmmakers have had to abort their careers in film or find work abroad. Moreover, as in Brazil, few black actors have appeared in central roles in nonhistorical feature films.

From the beginning of the revolution, however, Afro-Cubans and themes of the African diaspora have figured prominently in Cuba's film production. One important example is Sabá Cabrera Infante's 1961 short documentary film P.M., which includes scenes from Havana's nightlife. In the film, black Cubans (and some white Cubans) are shown dancing and drinking in a local bar in Havana. The government's censoring of the film marked an important shift in the relationship between intellectuals who had supported the revolution and the Castro government. Although Cuba's film production industry emerged under the watchful eyes of censors bent on promoting revolutionary ideas and themes, many Cuban filmmakers succeeded in bringing their critical vision to the silver screen. Cuban films also promoted Third World solidarity, as in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Cumbite (1964), based on the Jaques Roumain novel about the life of sugar-cane cutters in Haiti. As in the case of Brazil, four broad categories, with socialist modifications, can help one to understand the filmography of race and Afro-Cubans in Cuba (although all four engage more explicitly with notions of nationhood, or cubanidad ). These categories in Cuba are: (1) slavery; (2) miscegenation and racial intermingling; (3) music and culture; and (4) race, class, and nationhood.

Slavery lasted longer in Cuba than in any other Spanish colony, making Cuba the most culturally African of the Spanish-speaking nations of the Caribbean Basin. Thus, slavery and abolition figure prominently in the Cuban filmography. Indeed any film that treats the nineteenth century would be remiss without references to slavery. The majority of Cuban films that deal with slavery can be viewed through a Marxist revolutionary lens, with explicit class analysis, while at the same time they reconstruct important Cuban historical realities.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1977 La Última Cena (The Last Supper) deals explicitly with slavery and race relations. Based on an eighteenth-century incident, the film presents the story of a pious and supposedly well-meaning slave owner who decided to treat his slaves better by instructing them in the values of Christianity and by inviting them to participate in the feast of the celebration of Passover. The result is explosive, as the slaves rebel, burning the plantation and attempting to escape.

Afro-Cuban director Sergio Giral began his career with The Other Francisco (1975), a film that engages and deconstructs official interpretations of Cuban history. The film reinterprets Anselmo Suarez y Romero's nineteenth-century antislavery Romantic novel Francisco, written some twenty years before Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). While the novel focuses on Francisco's desperation that eventually leads to suicide, the film emphasizes Francisco's role in fighting the system and attempting to secure his freedom. Giral also directed a number of documentaries and feature films including Maluala (1979) and Maria Antonia (1991), the latter an innovative reading of the Afro-Cuban goddess of beauty Ochún.

The nineteenth century saw the decline of slavery at a time when most of the Latin American societies were becoming increasingly more mestizo (mixed race). Syncretism and racial intermingling figure prominently in Cuban films, and in many respects represent de facto Cuban culture, making the term "Afro-Cuban" problematic at best. Huberto Solás's Cecilia (1982), based on the nineteenth-century novel Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde, points to the problems of miscegenation in a society dominated by European values and is in many ways similar to A Escrava Isaura. Cecilia is part of a third-generation Cuban family that has slowly become more white. In the attempt to escape her black past, Cecilia must ultimately face tragic consequences. Solás' Miel para Ochún (Honey for Oshun, 2001) examines the issue of black heritage in a more provocative and politically charged manner. The main character, a white Cuban exile, returns to Cuba to find his mother, whom he barely remembers and whom he believes abandoned him. He not only comes into contact with Afro-Cuban culture, but he finds that his mother is Afro-Cuban, and thus a part of his lost past. The intertextual dialogue with earlier Cuban films such as Lucía (1969), also directed by Solás, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) cannot be overlooked. Particularly interesting is the choice of the actress Adelá Legrá to portray the Cuban mother in Honey for Oshún. Legrá had previously portrayed a peasant woman who becomes a part of revolutionary culture in the epic Lucía. In Honey for Oshun, Legrá is the character who represents the maternal figure whom the exiled protagonist seeks.

Despite Cuba's Marxist focus on class analysis, and its spurring of official religion, the Afro-Cuban religion Santería has flourished under the revolution and has even been commodified for a growing tourist economy. Cuban films have treated Santería as an integral part of Cuban culture, though often in passing or as a part of the Cuban landscape, as in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate (1994). Alea's treatment of race in Strawberry and Chocolate and Memories of Underdevelopment deserves special mention. On the one hand, blacks and blackness are equated in these films with undesirable Dionysian elements of Cuban culture from which the protagonists of both films wish to distance themselves. On the other hand, black actors in Cuba and throughout Latin American are often limited to roles representing stereotypes, such as the uncontrolled dancers and musicians in the opening scene of Memories of Underdevelopment or the santero in Strawberry and Chocolate.

Other feature films have provided lengthy examinations of African cultural influences. A departure from the political and committed new cinema of Cuba is Manuel Octavio Gómez's eclectic 1982 musical Patakín. This film provides a modern reading of two Yoruba deities in conflict: Changó, the god of thunder (represented by a man who lives off of his wife) and Oggún, the deity of war and guardian of arms and metals (represented by a hardworking machinist). Although drawing on popular idioms, the film, which was billed as Cuba's first musical, was more comedy than drama, and was not successful in engaging Cuban audiences.

The films Miel para Ochún and La vida es Silbar (Life Is to Whistle, 1998) address Afro-Cuban cultural influences and their relationship to larger national issues in a more profound manner. In the former, the search for the character's mother is explicitly and implicitly tied to the search for Oshún, the goddess of sweetness and beauty, at a critical time in Cuba's divided history. In the multilayered Guantanamera (1951), Alea integrates Afro-Cuban mythology throughout the narrative to comment critically on the Cuban political situation, death, and, ultimately, life in Cuba at the end of the 1990salthough the major characters are not black.

Afro-Cuban customs and rituals have also been explored in many Cuban documentaries and shorts. Gloria Rolando's Oggún (1992), for example, provides viewers with an understanding of the Afro-Cuban god of the same name. Through the multilayered testimony of Lázaro Ross, the lead singer of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional de Cuba and a devotee of Oggún, Rolando presents viewers with stories that allow them to understand Santería, which remains vital to Cubans both inside and outside of Cuba. The Afro-Cuban filmmaker Rigoberto López's Yo soy del son a la salsa explores the development of the musical form salsa from its beginnings in Cuba as son. Luis Felipe Bernaza's Hasta la Reina Isabel baila el danzón (Even Queen Isabel Dances the Danzón, 1991) is a docu-drama that combines live interviews with surrealistic recreations, satirizing many popular Cuban beliefs. The director includes scenes from Yoruba ceremonies and an innovative rendition of the Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén's famous work "Sensemayá." Especially important in helping to raise awareness of many of the forgotten Afro-Cuban musical veterans was Wim Wenders's widely acclaimed 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club. The film follows the making of a music CD and world tour of American musician Ry Cooder with legendary but forgotten Cuban musicians such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Omara Portuondo. The 1997 CD compiled by Ry Cooder was responsible for reviving the careers of all the musicians involved. The protagonists of the equally moving Danish-Cuban music documentary Lágrimas Negras (1997) directed by Sonia Herman Dolz, have not been as commercially successful. Cuba has also produced many documentaries on Afro-Cuban legendary musical figures such as Chano Pozo and Joseito Fernandez. José Sánchez-Montes's endearing documentary Bola De Nieve (2003), for example, provides a brief biography of the life of one of Cuba's musical treasures. There are also a handful of documentaries on African-American musicians, including Dizzie Gillespie and Harry Belafonte, who both visited Cuba.

As in Brazil, issues of race and class have been intimately intertwined, although in a way that is more ideologically tied to the discussion of integration, national sovereignty, and revolutionary consciousness. Cuba's first female director, Sarah Gómez Yara (19431974), was an Afro-Cuban pioneer who had directed a number of short documentaries before her acclaimed docudrama De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1977), which was codirected by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa. Gómez provides a poignant look at the culture of marginality prior to the Cuban Revolution, as well as the challenges of the revolution and the transition to a socialist society. The film is particularly important because of its focus on the ritual of the male-only Abakuá society, which was regarded by many in the Castro regime as anti-revolutionary.

Following in the footsteps of Gómez, Gloria Rolando's Roots of My Heart (2001) deserves particular mention because of its attempt to treat Cuba's race war of 1912. At that time, members of a Cuban black political party, the Independents of Color, clashed with government forces when parties based on color were declared illegal. The result was the massacre of thousands of Afro-Cubans and decades of silence about the event, which made discussions of racial discrimination all but taboo. Rolando was the first filmmaker to break the silence on this watershed event in Cuban history. She constructed the story from the perspective of a contemporary woman in search of answers about her great grandparents. Other historical perspectives can be gleaned from short documentaries (although many were made with few resources).

Si me comprendieras (If You Only Understood, 1998), by Rolando Díaz, is one of the first Cuban films to openly and frankly discuss Cuban racism, emigration, and Cuba's international historical and contemporary presence in missions abroad. The film begins with a Cuban director assembling his cast for a new film project. In search of a black female dancer and singer, he takes to the street with his video camera. The film follows the film crew from behind the camera as they encounter and talk with Cuban women and possible candidates. From this perspective, audiences receive a glimpse into filmmaking in Cuba, as well as perspectives on attitudes towards women and black Cubans.

The Cuban immigrant communities in the United States and the swelling exile communities in the post1959 era (particularly on the East Coast), have meant that, like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Cuban cultural production cannot be limited to the island. This is true of music and literature, but it is also true of film.

Particularly important from the African diaspora perspective is Pam Sporn's modest but revealing documentary Cuban Roots/Bronx Stories (2000), which highlights the experience of one black Cuban family while underscoring the diversity in the Cuban exile community. Cuban films in general have revealed a multiplicity of experiences, although the record indicates that, as in Brazil, films in which blacks figure prominently have more often than not dealt with historical themes of slavery and abolition or concentrated on documentaries related to cultural contributions. Complex portrayals where ordinary black Cubans take center stage are rare, although this practice is all too common in other Spanish-speaking countries as well.

Mexico and Spanish South and Central America

Over the last two centuries, Africans and their descendants have had an impact on the Spanish-speaking peoples of South and Central America in a variety of ways. The black population in Mexico and Argentina, although significant as late as the nineteenth century, do not constitute a major visual presence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Moreover, many Argentines and Mexicans are oblivious to the African influence on their past, although that influence in Buenos Aires and the Mexican states of Vera Cruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca has been fairly well documented. Maria Luisa Beberg's film Camila (1984) provides a brief glimpse at black servitude in the affluent O'Gorman household under the dictator Juan Manuel Rosas (ruled 18351852), but Argentine feature films rarely make references to or include Argentine blacks. In general, documentaries have more successfully challenged the national myths of whiteness and the official silence on the subjects of race and the African presence in feature films. Afroargentines (2002), by Diego Ceballos and Jorge Fortes, chronicles the marginalization and cultural legacy of blacks in Argentina, for example, while Lorena Fernandez's Sodad (2002) focuses on the Cape Verdian community in that country.

In Mexico, the now classic Angelitos negros, the 1948 Mexican remake of the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life (Hollywood versions were made in 1934 and 1959), deals explicitly with race. In Joselito Rodríguez's Mexican version, the prejudiced main character (played by a blond Ana Luisa de la Fuente), has no idea that her black maid is actually her mother, and when she finds out her attitude towards her changes. Ironically, a Cuban (Rita Montaner) plays the main black character, Ana Luisa's mother. The film dealt with issues that resonated throughout the region and was immensely successful in Mexico and throughout Latin America, though it was not inspired by a Mexican reality. To date Roberto Olivares' 2004 film, African Blood, is a rare, albeit short documentary that explores Mexico's African roots in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela have all been influenced by the African diaspora, though rarely has that influence engendered national debates. Moreover, since the early 1990s, economic and civil strife have made film production difficult in all three countries. Carlos Hugo Christensen's earlier La Balandra Isabel llegó está tarde (The Yacht Isabel Arrived This Afternoon, 1949) represents an important cinematographic contribution to the filmography phy of the African diaspora. Adapted from the Guillermo Memeses's story of the same name, the film provides a rare portrait of urban Afro-Venzuelan culture narrated from the perspective of a black prostitute. In Colombia, a handful of documentaries have explored the country's African legacy, particularly the palenques (escaped slave communities). The 2002 British-Colombian coproduction of Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia, directed by Tom Feiling, looks at hip-hop culture in Colombia and the response of various artists to the civil war that has ravaged the country for decades.

In the Andean region, which is without a strong film tradition, documentaries and docudramas such as Carlos Ferrand's docudrama Cimarrones (1982) treat the themes of slavery and rebellion. This docudrama looks at slavery and the relationship between Africans and Native Americans under Spanish rule. More recently, the Alberto Durant feature Coraje (1998) focuses on the extraordinary figure of María Elena Moyano, an Afro-Peruvian activist from the neighborhood of Villa El Salvador, on the outskirts of Lima. Like the majority of Latin American films with central black characters, Coraje is not about blackness, per se, but about Moyano's role as a grassroots activist and community leader caught between the terrorist activities of the Shining Path guerrillas and the inattentive government. The documentary on the renowned singer and activist Susana Baca in the joint Peruvian-Belgian film Susana Baca: Memoria Viva (2002) continues the focus on Afro-Peruvian women.

The vibrant and diverse black communities that make up Central and South America face similar infrastructure problems that limit film production. A host of other documentaries about the African experience in the Americas provide glimpses into local enterprise, however. They include small budget productions such as the Rafael Deugenio's sixteen-minute Candombe (1993), about the Afro-Uruguayan musical tradition. U.S.-based production companies and joint Latin AmericanU.S. ventures have added to the growing list of documentaries, including the Empowerment Project's The Panama Deception (1992), which features interviews with a number of Afro-Panamanian community leaders and commentators, attesting to the varied and diverse African presence through the Americas. However, much of that influence in Spanish South America and Mexico has yet to be explored on film.

The peoples of the African diaspora have had an impact, directly or indirectly, on every American nation. Government commitment to funding film production has provided the necessary backbone to the Brazilian and Cuban film industries, although foreign and private investment has also been critical. Documentaries, with their lower production costs, have highlighted important issues about the African experience in the Americas. Historical films aside, until recently Latin American filmmakers were not as likely to treat issues of prejudice and racial discrimination as central issues, at least when compared to their North American counterparts. Ironically, this has begun to change at a time when North America has seen a number of black actors play roles that are not racially predetermined and when interracial alliances are becoming more common on the silver screen. The welcome addition of a number of Afro-Latin American filmmakers, actors, and other professionals has benefited the region's film production, as has cross-national collaboration. These two developments will be fundamental to the exploration of black themes and issues in the future.

See also Documentary Film; Film in the United States; Filmmakers in the Caribbean; Representations of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean


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Johnson, Randall, and Robert Stam, eds. Brazilian Cinema, expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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dariÉn j. davis (2005)

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Film in Latin America and the Caribbean

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