Brazilian soap operas slowly cast black middle class

by April 11, 2015 5:00AM ET

Black actors move beyond roles as maids, thieves and drug dealers, but insiders say more diverse film/TV writers needed

Race & Ethnicity
Actor Sílvio Guindane poses on the set of the telenovela Vitória at Record studios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October, 2014.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America
Guindane, left, and fellow cast member Heitor Martinez work on a scene for Vitória.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America

RIO DE JANEIRO – Dressed in a fitted white designer shirt, Sílvio Guindane stood beneath a chandelier on a grand wrought iron staircase and smiled confidently. Below, a set of ornate drinking glasses sat next to a collection of spirit bottles. Above, framed monochrome prints and color landscapes adorned the walls.

It is an archetypal image of upper middle class Brazil. And for good reason as this is the set of “Vitória,” one of the country’s ubiquitous novelas, the phenomenally popular soap operas that for more than 50 years have thrived on the country’s major television networks — often by portraying lavish lifestyles beyond the means of most viewers.

There is just one thing that is unusual: Guindane, 31, who plays a successful engineer, is black.

Just over 50 percent of Brazil’s population is black or mixed race, yet for decades such characters have rarely been seen on novelas, which frequently depicted a society that was almost exclusively white. If black Brazilians did land roles, they portrayed maids, thieves or drug dealers – overtly bad characters or marginal ones who disappeared after a few episodes. Now a rising black middle class is helping to change that.

“When I started, about 20 years ago, I was often regarded as the black actor. Today, I am just an actor,” Guindane said. He had finished filming a scene in which his character, Paulo Henrique, confides in his best friend, who is white, about the end of a relationship. The scene would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

Guindane’s debut role, as a 12-year-old, was in the film How Angels Are Born. He played a stereotypical favela kid who becomes involved in the kidnapping of an American. But Brazil has changed, and so too have its soap operas, which at peak times can attract audiences of up to 40 million people per episode.

People watch a telenovela film near the beach of Copacabana, May 2013.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America

Since president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2003, about 40 million Brazilians – many black – have been lifted out of poverty by welfare schemes such as the bolsa familia, which offers a basic monthly payment to millions of people.

This new middle class then began to gain cultural capital in a vast country whose self-image remained falsely white and whose soap operas focused strongly on a privileged, Rio de Janeiro-centric world. Television producers began to take notice.

In a slow process that began soon after the turn of the millennium, novelas began to depict a more varied tapestry of characters and settings. In 2004, Tais Araújo became the first black actress to take a starring role in a soap opera. Since then, she and a handful of other black actors have become recognizable fixtures on the shows.

Despite these successes, Guindane warns of slow progress, due in part to the scarcity of black authors and filmmakers.

“These professions are elitist and not accessible to black Brazilians and they in turn have an impact on the plots that are written,” he said. “Black people in this country still have many victories left to win to show to television audiences the true face of Brazil.”

The set of Vitória evokes the home of upper middle class Brazilians.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America
Screenwriter Joel Zito Araújo at the Centro Afro Carioca de Cinema, Rio de Janeiro, February 1, 2015.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America

One rare case of a black screenwriter is Joel Zito Araújo, former president of the Brazilian Filmmakers Association, and the author of the 2004 film Daughters of the Wind, which won many awards in Brazil. In 2000 he co-authored a book with Taís Araújo called The Denial of Brazil: The Negro in Brazilian Novelas.

In researching novelas between 1963 and 1998, Araújo discovered a third of them featured no black actors. In the other two-thirds, the black and minority cast filled subordinate roles. Indigenous Brazilian characters rarely appeared.

“One of the great features of Brazil is that is it is multiracial but the soap operas only represented white history,” he said. “Slavery was never resolved. After it finished, blacks did not progress in our society. The government adopted a policy of bleaching, to follow the first world. They wanted a white Brazil.”

Nowadays, he says black actors often portray middle-class characters. “But it is still rare to see a whole black family represented,” he added.

Araújo said a progressive movement started in the mid-1990s to elevate the image of black Brazilians. He said over many years “a great conceptual change” happened and cited the recent novela “Lado a Lado” (Side by Side), which won an International Emmy Award for the best telenovela in 2013. It depicted a friendship between a rich white woman and a poor black woman in early 20th century Rio de Janeiro, soon after the abolition of slavery.

But even in that novela, he said, only about 30 percent of the cast was black. “Even there blacks were represented as a minority, when they are not,” he said. “Only today are we beginning to recognize the existence of racism in our social relations.”

Ícaro Silva recently starred in "S'imbora, o Musical - a História de Wilson Simonal" about the legendary black 1960s-era Brazilian singer.
Rafael Fabres / Getty Images Assignment for Al Jazeera America

Maria Cristina Brandão de Faria, a professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais who researches television, culture and identity, said Brazilian novelas won’t fairly reflect reality until the writers demand it.

“It would be them and not the networks that will decide if they want to properly tell the untold story of the difficulties that black people face in our society, the racism and the violence,” she said. “If racism were given a primary plot line, it could have very large repercussions in society and in the press.”

To demonstrate the prejudice that persists, she cited the case of prominent black actor Lázaro Ramos, whose on-screen relationship with the well-to-do character of white actress Débora Falabella, did not go unremarked in the Brazilian press.

“So this kind of plot is at risk of being rejected by the viewers. There are still elements in our society that would object,” Faria said.

Ícaro Silva, a 28-year-old actor and television presenter, said the market is moving slowly toward a more credible representation of Brazilian society. In his breakout 2003 role in the novela “Workout,” Silva played a black teenager in a role not explicitly tied to a racial issue. This year he starred in a musical dedicated to the legendary black 1960s-era Brazilian singer Wilson Simonal.

“I have had the opportunity to play great characters,” he said, “but this is sadly not the reality for most young Brazilian black actors.”