CONTESTED NATIONAL IDENTITIES IN CONTEMPORARY BRAZILIAN CINEMA

TATIANA HEISE 

Re-envisioning Afro-Brazilian women in Fala mulher! 

 

Shot on digital video and with a small crew to facilitate an atmosphere of ‘closeness’ between filmmakers and interviewees, Fala mulher! blends straightforward ‘talking heads’ documentary with techniques normally associated with more experimental filmmaking, such as: blurred images in slow motion; alternation between colour and B&W; animation inserts; and superimposition of the filmed image with textual information. Despite these and other occasional reflexive devices, for the most part the film presents itself as an unmediated recording of persons discussing specific issues, as if the spectator had been placed in a focus group where spontaneous speeches are made. In this and other respects, Fala mulher! invites comparisons with Eduardo Coutinho’s documentaries Babilônia 2000 and Santo forte, where the director interviews black and mixed-race persons living in impoverished urban areas, many of whom have a strong relation to music and religion (see chapter x). What makes Fala mulher! distinctive is its political alignment. Nikolela and Rodriguez have their subjects talk about certain issues that are clearly avoided in Babilônia 2000 and Santo forte, notably, racial discrimination, social inequality and the predominance of an anti-black aesthetics in Brazil. 

There are fifteen characters in Fala mulher!, all of whom are black women living in the poor outskirts of Rio and São Paulo. Some of them are pensioners and others have low-paid jobs as manicurists, maids, secretaries, teachers and hairdressers. Most of them work, or have worked, as samba dancers and the youngest are active members of the samba school Camisa Verde e Branco, as revealed in the numerous shot of carnival festivities that punctuate the film. The inteviewees’ strong relation to candomblé is also explored as an important element of their Afro-Brazilian identity. 

The final sequence of Fala mulher!, filled with images of a joyful carnival parade, is reminiscent of Babilônia 2000, which also climaxes with a party. In Coutinho´s film, the slum dwellers descend the hill to celebrate New Year´s Eve on the beach in apparent communion with all other social groups in Rio de Janeiro. Yet, while Babilônia 2000 explores the possibility of ‘temporary equality’ between poor and rich, black and white, Fala mulher! leaves the spectator with a strong sense of the social and racial divisions in Brazilian society. In this film, such national manifestations as samba and carnival do not suspend racism and social inequality; they coexist with it.

The most interesting aspect of the speeches registered in Fala mulher! is that, assembled together, they lead us to a counter-hegemonic view of what it means to be black, female and poor in Brazil. The choice of topics is particularly significant. If in Babilônia we hear about the preparations for the New Year festivity and the strong sense of community among favela residents, the interviewees of Fala mulher! reveal their struggle against poverty, racism and all the stigma that is imposed on black women by a male-oriented society where the whitening ideology that prevailed in the past still has strong consequences in the present. The women´s way of reconstructing their social reality varies between, on the one hand, a cheerful optimism and fantasy of being ‘queens’ and ‘princesses’ of carnival, and on the other, a deep awareness of their disadvantaged condition as members of a society where women, blacks and poor are treated as inferior citizens. Whereas Babilônia is almost entirely dominated by the optimism and fantasy regarding the self-image of the disenfranchised, in Fala mulher! these elements are questioned and contested. 

As I discuss some of the themes arising from Fala mulher!, I shall refer to Negras in Brazil(2007), Kia Lilly Caldwell´s insightful study about the citizenship of black women in Brazil. Caldwell addresses many of the questions articulated in Nikolela´s and Rodrigues´s film. I will focus on four: the challenges that women of African descent face in terms of identity and self-esteem; the persistence of a racialised and gendered discourse that fixes Afro-Brazilian women in specific roles in Brazilian society; the contestation of the discourse of mestiçagem or racial hybrity through the affirmation of black identity; and the denunciation of practices of racial discrimination. 

I have argued in Chapter 5 that, in the 1920s and 1930s, mestiçagem was transformed from a negative value to the most celebrated principle of Brazilian national identity. I have also observed that many authors point to the contradictions of a discourse which valorises mestiçagem but, at the same time, helps to legitimate practices of racism and racial discrimination. Caldwell’s original contribution to this debate lies in her decision to focus not only on the racialised aspects of Brazilian national identity, but also on its gendered features. She discusses how the valorisation of Afro-Brazilian women’s roles in the process of national formation via miscegenation ‘obscures the ways in which gender and racial assymetries have traditionally positioned them as social, racial, and sexual subordinates’ (2007:39). As I have argued in Chapter 5, The Freyrian and modernist discourses on mestiçagem imply that racial intermixture took place in a context of sexual libertinism and racial democracy, rather than being a product of violence and sexual abuse. Caldwell stresses that, by erasing the asymmetrical power relations between white slave masters and black female slaves, the discourse of mestiçagem naturalises the sexual objectification and social subordination of Afro-Brazilian women, a phenomenon which continues to shape their identities in the present.

One of Caldwell’s central concerns is the devalued status of black women in Brazilian society. She reproduces the accounts of several Afro-Brazilian women who experience feelings of being ‘anonymous’ and ‘invisible’, of lacking respect, recognition and value. Similar experiences are articulated in Fala mulher!. The film confronts the devaluation of black women by reaffirming their racial identity and turning blackness into a positive and even poetic feature. This strategy is clear from the prologue of the film, which draws attention to the African ancestry of the interviewees and links it to their present-day experiences. By means of scratchy chalk-made text and illustrations and the use of African chants on the soundtrack, the prologue tells the legend of the Bambara people in the region of the upper Niger River. They communicated only through whispers, we are informed, until one night, a phallic God tried to strangle the night goddess and she cried out so loud that her voice echoed on the banks of the river, originating speech. The screen then goes black and the soundtrack is filled with fragments of phrases spoken by women: ‘I am a woman’; ‘Samba is everything’; ‘Brazil is a country that…’; ‘I enjoy freedom’; ‘sexual object’; ‘because I was black’. All these phrases are simultaneously printed on the screen, forming a mosaic of words with ‘woman’, in larger font, at the centre. The last words are spoken more emphatically: ‘Eu sou negra’ (‘I am a black woman’). This prologue synthesises the whole film, where women ‘cry out’ (as suggested in the English title) against their subordination and construct a new discourse about race, gender and national identity. 

Some interviewees are asked to stand up and perform before the camera, an act which reinforces their identification as ‘artists’ and refutes a pervasive form of prejudice whereby black samba dancers are seen as sexually available and promiscuous. A cheerful lady in her 70s and former member of the black movement, Di’s performance is particularly interesting. By means of a song, she summarises the arguments made by other interviewees: 

 

I am crioula (black woman) yes, sir/ I want to show that I am worthy […]/ I am a black woman with pure Brazilian blood/ […] On the hill it was such a struggle/ I moved to France and my luck changed […] I climbed the social ladder/ I worked so hard, I wore myself out/ But I did it singing/ It is not what you are thinking. 

 

Di’s performance is an example of how the film attempts to replace the devalued status of black women with a sense of pride (as articulated in the verse ‘I am worthy’). It also exemplifies the use of the black body and voice to contest the ‘invisibility’ and ‘anonymity’ mentioned above. The last verses of the song evoke the existence of racial discrimination and prejudice in Brazil. They also suggest that it is so difficult for a black woman to ‘climb the social ladder’ that, when this does happen, she is regarded as a prostitute or as an opportunistic (‘It is not what you are thinking’). 

Another sequence which serves to same effect of breaking down prejudices is the music video where Audilê, a former cabaret dancer, puts on her make-up and dresses herself up to go shopping in the neighbourhood. Accompanied by the cheerful samba ‘Dura na queda’ (Tough in the fall) sung by Elza Soares, who is an icon of black female power in Brazil, the sequence celebrates the black woman´s beauty, elegance and sensuality. The choice of music (played in its entirety) and the camerawork, which follows Audilê like a passionate admirer, capturing her smiles, gestures and moves, suggest an attempt to invest an ordinary event in the life of a black woman with a new, poetic significance. The relevance of this scene can only be understood against the backdrop of the predominance of a white standard of beauty in Brazil, whereby ‘black’ is often associated with ‘ugly’ and where media representations privilege the images of light-skinned women (Caldwell 2007: 81-106; Burdick 1998:27-42; Simpson 1993; Araújo 2000; Pinho 2006). A music video such as this, where the black woman is represented as beautiful without being overtly sexualised, is a rare sight on Brazilian television. The same is true of mainstream cinema where, as observed by Stam (1997:342), black women have been strikingly absent, unless when playing the roles of domestic servants, maids, slaves and faveladas. By placing the black woman at the centre of the spectator´s attention, and by filling the screen with images and sounds of black women articulating black pride, either in the form of speech, song, or a simple walk in the neighbourhood, Fala mulher! thus opposes a long-standing tradition in Brazilian audiovisual culture. 

The film also contests the idea that blacks are ‘naturally’ prone to samba and musicality. This is done by means of testimonials and images which reveal the hard work that is put into carnival and the different types of roles that women perform within a samba school, not only as sambistas but also as teachers, accountants and directors.

As argued by Caldwell, representations of Afro-Brazilian women in the nationalist discourse have played a central role in naturalizing the colonial practices of racial and gender domination. As a result, a similar division between service/subordination and power/privilege persists in contemporary Brazil, both discursively and structurally: ‘In contemporary Brazil, it is socially expected and accepted that Afro-Brazilian women will be servants, sexual objects, or social subordinates’ (Caldwell 2007:57; see also Burdick 1998: 45-50). This view is clearly articulated by the interviewees in Fala mulher!. Many of them discuss their experiences of being ‘put in their places’. Duda, an assertive and charismatic teacher in her sixties, argues that the only context in which the black woman is praised and accepted by whites is when she works for them as a cook or a cleaning-lady. Amanda and Aline, two students in their early twenties, recount their experience of being approached by men who mistake them for prostitutes during carnival. The film attempts to show how such prejudices affect the self-image of the Afro-Brazilian woman. Cleusa, a former samba dancer aged 60, gives her appreciation of the term ‘mulata gostosa’ (hot mulatta), which in a machista context is expected to be taken as a compliment. ‘I find this deeply offensive. The black woman is nobody´s sexual object. She is a woman who works, who gets up early, has children, marries and wants to have her own house’. Some women touch on what is a potentially controversial subject, their experience working as ‘professional mulatas’ (the term is used to describe Afro-Brazilian women working as dancers in nightclubs and shows that travel abroad). It is potentially controversial because the occupation invites different opinions. On the one hand, the professional mulata can be understood as a form of black female emancipation in comparison to domestic service and other under-paid, low-status jobs. As observed by Caldwell (2007:59), working as a professional mulata provides women with higher financial compensation and status as performers in the tourism and entertainment industries. At the same time, however, this occupation does not signify an advance from the traditional roles ascribed to Afro-Brazilian woman. After all, what distinguishes the ‘professional mulata’ from other mulatas is her ability to exercise power of seduction over the public. Mulatas shows depend largely on the visual consumption of the black female body by men, most of whom are foreign (Caldwell 2007:60). Hence, even if the professional mulata does enjoy a higher social status than the domestic servant, she is nevertheless still caught up the servant/sexual object position. In the areas of transnational tourism and entertainment, the mulata continues to represent the ‘woman to fornicate’. This aspect is not taken up by the film, which limits the debate about the sexual objectification of mulatas to questions of whether or not there is indeed prostitution among the Mulatas do Sargentelli. One of the weaknesses of the film is the implication that, as long as a woman takes pleasure and pride in her role, as suggested by many interviewees who worked in Sargentelli’s group, then her subordination or objectification is somehow compensated for. The selection of interviewees has an important impact here. Had the directors included interviews with women who had not been associated with mulata shows or samba schools, then perhaps the film would have been benefited with different opinions about what the ‘professional mulata’ means for the identity of Afro-Brazilian women. 

There is one sequence in which the film does complicate the self-image of the black female dancer by juxtaposing the testimonials of Amanda and Aline with the counterargument of a more experienced and politically aware sambista. In this case, the topic under discussion is not mulata shows, but carnival. The two young sambistas show a tape of TV Globo’s broadcast of a carnival parade where they both participated as drum corps queens. Their sense of pride and satisfaction becomes quite clear as the camera alternates between the images on the TV screen and their facial expressions as they watch themselves there. The film then cuts to the following speech by Cleusa:  

 

Their dream is to be in front of the drum corps and to appear on Globo television. They have nothing, they have so little that just by wearing a nice costume on carnival day, arriving at the pathway and seeing that crowd, they are fulfilling their dreams. […] The carnival court is a dream, you fulfill your dreams there. You are king, queen, count, or master… you are everything. There, during the carnival fantasy, you can be whatever you want. And that is the space which is given to us. 

 

The film then cuts back to Amanda and Aline displaying their carnival costumes, photographs and newspaper cuttings for the camera, as a visual confirmation of what Cleusa has just said. I have emphasised Cleusa’s last phrase because it encapsulates her sharp awareness of the limited space that is accorded to black women (‘us’) in Brazilian society. She does not discard carnival as a mere ‘alienation’. On the contrary; being a former sambista herself, she knows the joy of parading and of enacting a fantasy of power and social status (‘king, queen, count, or master’). Yet she lets it clear that carnival is a fantasy and that it does not represent a change in the ways in which the black woman is seen and treated in everyday life. These aspects which Cleusa articulates so well are unfortunately ignored in the discussions about the professional mulata. 

At the same time that the film draws attention to the subordination and sexual objectification of black women in cultural and social life, it systematically contests these processes by proposing alternative images and discourses. This is, perhaps, the most effective way in which the film combats the commonsensical understandings of black women: by drawing attention to other aspects of their lives, such as their work and their struggle to raise a family. In these sequences, the dancers and sambistas are turned into ‘warriors’. The word ‘batalhar’ (to struggle or to fight) appears frequently in their speech, accompanied by images of male or female warriors, some of them from candomblé, either in the form of illustration inserts or in the form of pictures hanging on the walls of the interviewees’ own homes. During the following statement by Cleusa, the frame juxtaposes a close-up of her face with a painting on the wall directly behind her. The painting shows a naked, muscular woman holding a weapon. Cleusa´s speech invites an association between herself and the warrior figure: ‘I have to fight for everything, nothing comes to me easily, it´s a real struggle. We struggle for housing our whole lives’ (my emphasis). By stressing her determination, her agency and her ability to exert a power that is not sexual, Cleusa’s speech proposes a radical break with the traditional view of the black woman as a social and sexual subordinate. The film’s emphasis on a black woman’s hard work and capacity to support her own family also confronts traditional understandings of the Brazilian family in general, where the man is expected to occupy the role of the bread winner and the woman is commonly associated with domestic affairs. This view is further challenged as Cleusa goes on to discuss the courage of homeless women who participate in invasions of unoccupied properties. The image of Cleusa´s face and the warrior is intercut with that of a newspaper with the headline ‘Even without support from their husbands, women take the lead and invade (…)’. The picture illustrating the article shows two heavily pregnant women taking part in the invasions of a building in the centre of São Paulo. The film thus reverses the positions accorded to women in patriarchal society by transforming them from subordinate to their husbands to leaders of social movements, and from victims of social exclusion to agents of resistance.

   

Immediately after this sequence, in which Cleusa and others describe experiences of poverty, homelessness and unemployment, a moving shot taken from the interior of a car zooms into the image of a huge Brazilian flag painted on a wall. The samba played on the soundtrack is ‘Sorriso negro’, an ode to blackness by famous Afro-Brazilian samba composer Dona Ivone Lara: ‘A black smile/ a black embrace/ bring happiness. A black person without a job/ has no peace/ Black is the root of freedom/ Black is the colour of respect’. This scene is an interesting example of how the film continuously draws upon elements of national identity (samba, carnival, the national flag) whilst at the same time privileging negritude. As I have argued above, the valorisation of an alternative identity and the contestation of the hegemonic discourse of Brazilian nationhood do not necessarily implicate on the demise of national identity. The importance that Fala mulher! ascribes to symbols of brasilidade is yet a further indication of this. 

Another way in which Fala mulher! confronts the dominant discourse of national identity is by rejecting the categorisation of Afro-descendants into different colour groups and, instead, underlying their ‘blackness’. The film adopts a clear oppositional stance towards the ideologies of miscegenation and mulatismo, as proposed in Di´s testimonial: ‘There is no such thing as mulato, you are either black or white. (...)  People say to my daughters “What a pretty mulatinha”, and they reply “I am not mulata, I am negra”. Because no one wants to be black in Brazil’. As I have argued in Chapter 8, this speech is indeed relevant in the context of the current debate on race and race relations in Brazil. It reflects a growing tendency among Afro-Brazilians to self-identify as black, an act which reverses the longstanding preference for the more ambiguous and fluid colour-based categories (moreno, pardo, marrom-bombom, and so forth). In Sheriff’s (2001:207) words, to become a ‘negro assumido’ is ‘to reject the polite discourses and miscegenated identities associated with intermediate racial terms […] in favour of an unambiguous, unsoftened, and unqualified negro identity’. The interviewee´s identification with blackness and her sentiment of black pride are explored in this and other passages of the film, where interviewees discuss the difficulty of assuming their black identity in what they consider to be a deeply racist society. 

Cleusa argues that Brazil has the worst kind of racial prejudice, because it is concealed. Her view reflects a well-established argument among those anti-racist theories who argue that Brazil distinguishes itself from other nations of the African diaspora not by being less racist, but by having a different form of racism: racismo cordial (cordial racism) (Da Matta 1997). This view is confirmed in the accounts of Audilê, Duda and Claudia, all of whom have been victims to some kind of ‘cordial racism’. Audilê was prevented from doing a job as a hospital nurse because the patient demanded ‘a lighter skinned person, a blonde’; Duda was rejected for a job as receptionist with the justification that dark-skinned women were not suited to sit at a receptionist’s desk. Claudia recollects that many of her friends gave up studying because of they could no longer bear the racist jokes made by their white colleagues. She argues that complaints to teachers produced no effect. Di, who was a member of the Black Movement for 20 years, tells the camera triumphantly that May 13th (The anniversary of Abolition) is no longer a national holiday in Brazil. ‘Holiday for what?’ she asks. Her suggestion that abolition did not really free the black population is accompanied by the illustration of a female slave wearing a metal mask over her mouth, a strategy that further invites the spectator to reflect on the long-standing effects of slavery in contemporary society. 

The themes addressed in Fala mulher!, the editing, the visuals and, not least, the music, suggest that the filmmakers have a strong feminist, pro-black and anti-racist agenda that is atypical in Brazilian mainstream cinema. The construction of characters in Fala mulher! transcends the simplistic roles of ‘mothers’, ‘whores’, ‘lovers’ or ‘wives’ which still predominate in Brazilian popular culture, including film, as the main types of identities available for women. The fiction film Filhas do vento (Daughters of the Wind, Joel Zito Araújo, 2005), and the fiction-documentary Mulheres do Brasil (Women of Brazil, Malu de Martino, 2006) are two examples. 

Filhas do vento establishes a contrast between two black sisters living with their authoritarian father in the countryside of Minas Gerais. As they reach adulthood, Ju settles in her hometown and devotes herself to domestic life and has numerous children, fulfilling her father´s expectations. Cida, in turn, rebels against patriarchal order and moves to Rio de Janeiro where she becomes an actress. As the narrative unravels we find hat the Ju has led a happy existence, surrounded by loved ones. The more independent Cida, on the other hand, has achieved professional success at the cost of a solitary and dysfunctional emotional life. The film clearly suggests that women are happier when they dedicate themselves to the roles of lovers, caretakers and mothers. Curiously, despite the father´s machismo and authoritarianism, he does not mind Ju’s sexual freedom (she has children with several different men). On the contrary, the patriarch praises Ju’s decision to ‘miscegenate’ and to produce children with varying skin tones, from light brown to black. The resonance with the Freyrian discourse here is unequivocal. 

Female sexual liberation is also represented positively in Mulheres do Brasil. Composed of five short stories, each one set in a different region with a different female lead, the film tries to establish some degree of communality between women from the different regions – in other words, it tries to establish a Brazilian female identity. In order to confer a degree of truthfulness on the stories, each episode includes documentary inserts where ‘real’ Brazilian women give testimonials about a topic that is being discussed in the story, for example: religion, samba, marriage, prostitution and motherhood. The protagonists of three stories are white, and their conflicts are ultimately resolved through sexual encounters and/or romantic relationships with men. The two other protagonists are played by Afro-Brazilian actresses. The first is Esmeralda, played by Camila Pitanga. Rebellious and sexually aggressive, Esmeralda has the habit of bringing terrified young men into her bedroom while her parents sleep. She then moves from their house in the interior of Bahia to Salvador, where she becomes a high class prostitute and the mistress of a corrupt white politician. The second protagonist is Thelma, a sambista whose life depends on the white jury’s approval of her performance in the samba parade. Whilst twirling before the jury, Thelma falls. Her sense of failure is so overwhelming that she goes home and attempts suicide. During her recovery, however, she finds that the jury has actually forgiven her ‘mistake’ and awarded her samba school the first prize. Thelma is then able to recover and feel happy again. A third and minor black character in the film is Cida, a domestic servant who is reprehended for introducing the eight-year-old son of her white patroa (female boss) to a sexualised kind of dance. 

The traditional view of the Afro-Brazilian woman as oversexualised and/or socially inferior is clearly reproduced in the first and third cases: Esmeralda rejects her strict middle-class education in favour of sexual promiscuity and prostitution, while Cida corrupts a child. In the story of Thelma, the underlying suggestion is that a black woman can feel proud of herself as long as she accomplishes the role that is ascribed to her in national culture, that is, to dance samba and to twirl before an audience. Filhas do vento and Mulheres do Brasil also reinforce the machista idea that, although some women may become independent and successful in their professions, it is ultimately the love of a man, marriage and children that lead women to satisfaction. 

Fala mulher! remains one of the few examples in contemporary Brazilian cinema which systematically replaces dominant gendered and racialized discourse on women with a more complex representation of them as workers, ‘warriors’, militants, agents of social change and re-articulators of their own identities. The film is also an exception in the sense that it privileges the fluid and malleable aspects of black female identity, as opposed to fixing characters in ‘essential’ roles (mothers, lovers, whores, and so forth). The film proposes that women adopt multiple subject positions according to the different social contexts in which they find themselves. Moreover, rather than emphasise either the characters’ organic individuality or uniqueness (as in the case of Eduardo Coutinho´s documentaries), or their social role (as Quilombos maranhenses and O massacre do Alto Alegre, where the characters are representatives of a racial or ethnic group and their individual traits are suppressed) Fala mulher! alternates between the two. We get both a sense of each woman’s singularity and of their part in a social and racial group which interpellates specific aspects of their identity. Nevertheless, despite its powerful construction of a counter-hegemonic discourse of racial and gendered identities, the film eventually suggests that national identity overrides other forms of social affiliation. This effect is produced by the way in which the film is structured and, above all, by the closing sequence, which emphasises a national (as opposed to ‘black’ or ‘Afro-Brazilian’) celebration. 

The film is structured around five topics of discussion, introduced loosely in this order: samba and carnival; racism and discrimination; candomblé; poverty and socio-economic inequality; family relationships and womanhood. Images of carnival rehearsals appear constantly throughout the narrative, marking the transition from one topic to the next. The final minutes of the film are black and white shots of the last rehearsal before the actual carnival parade, as informed in the subtitles. This is followed by comments on the importance of samba and carnival, such as: ‘Carnival gives me life’; ‘Samba is so good, oh my God!’; and ‘Samba is happiness to us. Brazilians don’t know what sadness is, because of samba’. In contrast to the black and white images of the rehearsals, the shots of the actual carnival parade appear in vibrant colour. The explosion of reds, yellows and greens and the smile on the women´s faces as they parade serve to further reinforce the impression of the interviewee´s strong joie de vivre. ‘If I could choose how to reincarnate, I´d ask to be black and a woman again’, Audilê concludes. 

Like the trilogy Futebol does in relation to Brazil´s most prestigious sport, Fala mulher! criticises some aspects of carnival while at the same celebrating its significance as a symbol of brasilidade. Also like Futebol, the film does not suggest that popular culture is a form of alienation or an ideology that covers up social divisions and inequalities (as, for example, Cronicamente Inviável does). Fala mulher! problematises dominant representations of carnival, notably, the images of semi-naked black women that saturate the Brazilian media every year, and reveals the more complex and multifaceted identities that lie behind these images. However, by privileging the women’s roles in carnival, as opposed to their other roles or activities, the film nonetheless reaffirms the old equation that blends together ‘samba’, ‘black female bodies’, and ‘inherent joy’ in the nationalist discourse. As I have mentioned before, it is significant that, in their project of making a film which attempts to valorise black identity, the directors have chosen to interview women who are associated with samba, mulata shows and carnival, that is, cultural practices that are strongly tied to hegemonic discourses of national identity and mestiçagem. It is also curious that a film which sets out to criticise so many aspects of Brazilian society (racism, discrimination, social inequality, machismo) should end with a scene that praises the beauty and the joy of a national celebration. In the beginning of this discussion, I briefly compare the closing scenes of Fala mulher! with that of Babilônia 2000. In Coutinho´s film, the celebratory tone of the ending is consistent with the rest of the film, which continuously promotes ideas of solidarity and ‘temporary equality’ among people of different races and social classes. This is not the case in Fala mulher!, whose ending poses a contrast with the general ideas articulated up until that moment. This ending seems to suggest that, although Afro-Brazilian women are victims of an unjust and unequal society, carnival somehow compensates for these problems by bringing them joy and satisfaction, as expressed in the phrase ‘Brazilians don’t know what sadness is because of samba’. 

Fala mulher! explores many dimensions in the life of an Afro-Brazilian woman -  profession, religion, political views -, yet it privileges carnival as an overriding motif. This emphasis on carnival, particularly in the closing scene, suggests the prevalence of the ‘national’ even when as the film tries to valorise an alternative identity. It also reinforces my argument that the construction of an alternative identity does not necessarily imply the rejection of national identity, only its re-articulation. This film in particular suggests that Afro-Brazilian women’s identification with national culture through carnival merits more attention and more space than all other processes of identification based on race, gender, social class and religion. 

book published by University of Wales [excerpt]

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