Originally published on Nerds of Color
At this point, it’s damn near impossible to keep up with the onslaught of Netflix original programming. Along with all of the film and series content, the tentacles of the entertainment Kraken inevitably started reaching out for more international collaborations. Around Thanksgiving we were treated to the Brazilian series 3%. In terms of originality, it doesn’t score high: another variation on the theme of a future world where young adults do what they have to do to survive.
It does have its points of deviation though from say The Hunger Games and Divergent with a touch of Elysium. Brazil has had a long and appalling history of income inequality, which I’m sure is where the idea of the tagline came from: “In a dystopian future there is a clear divide between the rich and poor, but when a person turns 20, they have the opportunity to cross the divide.” As implied, by free will all the candidates get to try to make it from the miserable mainland to the utopian island Mar Alto; that looks kind of like Recife to Fernando de Noronha on the map. The tests they undergo are less physical and more psychological until they are whittled down to the fabled 3%. The setting, albeit futuristic, feels closer to present as we undergo our own survival in the collapse.
The cast is stellar. Like a small Brazilian microcosm, the ethnic roots of the world are all on screen. Lovely diverse faces. And yet, this is where my principal criticisms also lie. Within all of the inclusiveness, two things happen. Firstly, for audiences both in and out of Brazil, I worry it could perpetuate the Brazilian myth of the “racial democracy.” I have attached a short appendix with a quick break down of Brazilian history and race relations from points I remember studying. And yelling at people in debates. The point is this and let me be clear: Brazil is racist as fuck.
Allow me to do a quick, sloppy, and profane history of Brazilian history and race relations through an anti-fascist lens breaking down some of the sub-myths that make up the larger “racial democracy” myth.
Myth #1: “The Portuguese were far nicer and more benevolent to Native peoples compared to the Spanish and other Europeans. Look at all the tribes that have survived comparatively.”
The Portuguese were mercantilist, imperialist, racist, genocidal terrorists. They not only employed the literal sword, but — certainly different than their English Puritan counter parts — were masters of the metaphorical sword raping who-knows-how-many indigenous women and forcing their children into Jesuit churches to be reprogrammed until their language and culture was lost and gone forever. So add misogynist to the above list.
As for the second part, this is mostly because of the sheer size and terrain of the country; specifically, in the Amazon. There are some tribes still being encountered. Hide comrades, hide! My native ancestors that were once all over had their population drastically decreased and relegated to what is now Paraguay (a Guarani word meaning “born of water”). Good on Paraguay too to keep the language alive and recognize Guarani as an official language, though you can’t travel anywhere in Brazil without seeing Guarani names for places and natural features. Yes, Uruguay is also a Guarani word (“bird river/waters”).
Myth #2: “Slavery wasn’t as bad in Brazil as it was in the Southern U.S. or the Caribbean. The master-slave relation was better and more eqaul.”
If you ever hear this; please, please, head-butt the person. Zidane style; right in the damn nose. This nonsense stems from Freyre’s famous Casa Grande e Senzala work that every student reads at some time and forms the basis for the racial democracy propaganda campaign. If this were the case, millions of Africans would not have been brutalized and countless murdered under the system. If this were the case, there would have been no reason for the centuries of African resistance revolving around the Quilombos and the legendary revolutionary leader Zumbi dos Palmares. If this were true, any of you that practice capoeira would have no capoeira to practice.
If this were true, the idea of branqueamento along with the absurd amount of ethnic identities that exist in Brazil to keep the multi-ethnic populace confused, divided by identity and dependent on nationalism to unify and bow to the flag, would not exist. If this were true, all of the racism and inequities that all people of African descent must navigate anywhere in the Americas, would not be present in Brazil. If you call police violence against black folk in the U.S. genocide, then it breaks my heart to say, but it’s some kind of hyper-genocide in Brazil. Slavery was hell, because of course it was. Nobody gets to use “better” and “slavery” in the same sentence. Slavery was fucking slavery. Period.
Myth #3: “Brazil is far more religiously tolerant than the rest of the Americas.”
This one falls apart quickly with the disappearance of numerous indigenous people’s beliefs with genocide and forced Christian conversions. Slaves had to create syncretic religions like Candomblé to fake out masters to keep their beliefs and traditions alive. Judaism and Islam arrived with the first Portuguese foot prints on the sand, because of the simple fact there was and is no such thing as an ethnically pure Portuguese.
Most were recently converted poor Sephardic Jews and Moors looking to get rich quick or die trying to better themselves back home. Ironically, the early Portuguese that barely understood Christianity would harass and attack those who held on to their original religions. The first synagogue in the Americas was founded in Pernambuco, under less attentive Dutch colonial rule in the 17th century, and Jews and Muslims played key roles in the quilombo’s resistance. Kind of like an earlier version of the underground railroad hiding and protecting run-away slaves until they were safe in the quilombo. Today, following corporate media hysteria from the north, Islamophobia is on the rise from Brazilian media even though a large percentage of the populous has ties to the Islamic world via Portuguese roots or more recent immigration.
Myth #4: “Brazil has always been welcoming to immigrants.”
On the surface, this is true. But you don’t have to scratch hard to peel back the sinister underbelly. Outside of the home lands, there are more people of Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, and other nationalities I’m forgetting in Brazil. Former president Dilma is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant and current illegitimate coup leader Temer is of Lebanese descent. Refugees welcome. Sort of. That white elite — to tie it in let’s call them “the 3%” — whose families a few generations prior were slave owners eventually found themselves in political and economic power. As the 3% looked around and realized that there were far more people of color than them, they needed to take action. Open borders; especially to Europeans.
Back to branqueamento; but a different tactic on the whitening of Brazil. German immigration began in the 19th century for the same reasons many came to the U.S. While not as large in numbers compared to the U.S., after Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese descendants, Germans are fifth largest at present. The big difference with the U.S. was the isolation of the German communities in the Southern Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Paraná. They did not assimilate and held strong to language and culture. You can easily hear German on the streets of Blumenau today. Fast forward to Hitler’s rise, and the world ended up with large numbers of Nazi sympathizers in Brazil and the Southern Cone.
As racists and fascists themselves, the white political elite had no problems with the Axis and tried to play both sides and stay neutral in WWII. After they started letting the U.S. set up bases, U-Boats began sinking Brazilian ships and forced Brazil’s hand to join the Allies. At the same time, there were Brazilian born Germans fighting with the Reich. The war declaration and more attention to assimilation only heightened tensions with the South. In the aftermath, the Southern states sought a sort of revenge to protect their kin.
There are pieces of truth in the fictional Boys from Brazil story, and thousands of Nazis ended up in hiding in Brazil and the Southern Cone. Almost out of the pages of a second Man in the High Castle book, Hitler was well aware of his South American support and planned a “re-colonization” effort of the Southern Cone. I know of two friends of family in Santa Catarina that learned after their reclusive grandfathers died that one was a former SS officer and the other fought in the underground Jewish resistance in Germany. And they lived on the same block.
The three Southern states tried to secede on more than one occasion, mainly because: racism. Oh and by the way, the movement is still active at present. Finally, while it may sound impossible, when you take all of this into account, it really isn’t too surprising that there is a city in Brazil where the U.S. Confederacy lives on. Yep. Shit is ugly, but the future is ours. A luta continua.
Without even knowing Brazil’s complicated history, all you have to do is walk a few blocks out of your comfort zone in a city like São Paulo, Rio, or a small town like Quirinópolis, and talk to people. If you dropped any white college kid and a black college kid, say, from Minneapolis, in the same city anywhere in Brazil and checked on them a few months later, you’d likely hear stories as though they were on two different planets. Not unlike such a reverse experiment in the U.S. With the brown skin I’m in from my Mediterranean/indigenous roots, I’ve even felt that discomfort in Southern Brazil a few times. While I’d agree there are differences in the dynamics in race relations between the U.S. and Brazil, the racial democracy angle is still a clever tool of white supremacy and ultra-nationalist bullshit.
The topic of race in Brazil is super deep, and I’ve got to get to the show. Google it and you won’t run out of books to read. Borrow some of mine, if you’d like. All of the issues people of color deal with in the U.S. exist there and the rest of the Americas with our common ties to a past of colonialism, imperialism, genocide, slavery, capitalism, and neo-liberalism into the fascist butterflies all coming out of their cocoons. The latter may be something new to many in the U.S. (it shouldn’t be), but it’s just a new wave in the case of Brazil and Latin America. At this point in socio-political history, the countries have more in common with one another than ever before. Yikes. On the positive side, it has been interesting to see how the Black Lives Matter movement has influenced the Afro-Brazilian movements of the same nature.
Next, even with Brazilians of African, Native, Asian, and MENA/Mediterranean descent cast in the show, the triangle between Michele, Ezequiel, and Rafael always seems to come into focus. There’s a reason for that, no spoilers. But the whiteness. Although not as blatant as Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Matt Damon’s new thing (come on, Zhang Yimou!), or any of the many other examples, we have the subtle arm of the white savior complex a foot here in the 3% exam world.
Whiteness has been the theme in Brazilian media since, well, shit, forever. There’s a famous quote, to whom I wish I could give credit, that goes something like: “If you only watched TV and never left your hotel room in Brazil, you would think you were in Switzerland.” Or Sweden is it? Either works and having traveled elsewhere in the Americas, it changes little. Actually you don’t have to go anywhere; turn on Univision. For diplomats and businessman, this is, as it turns out, closer to their own bubbled realities while they are there.
It was certainly like this when I was younger, and has improved some to be sure, but the racist ties in Brazilian media seem endless. I disclaim that I haven’t watched TV Globo in years, I’ll check with my mom or feel free to correct me, but Netflix coming after them and making these kind of casting and writing choices is definitely going to apply pressure. Then there’s the reach. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this one Brazilian Netflix show in Portuguese will be watched by more people worldwide than the last half century of Brazilian television programming. Boom.
If we briefly look at history, we can add a few extra layers of media revulsion; because racism isn’t bad enough. Ah how the road to fascist dictatorship doth need media collaborators at the wheel. This may sound familiar. The largest media conglomerate in all of Latin America, Globo, aided in disinformation (then as print media, just beginning TV) during the Operation Condor U.S. sponsored coup d’etat in the ’60s that led to decades of dictatorship and utter terror for millions of Brazilians. Some very close to me. In fact, the opening scene in the final episode shows a, let’s call it a “hard scene to watch,” with ties to the School of the Americas in the U.S. that was then perfected by the Brazilian Military Police of that time. Globo was, unsurprisingly, the dictators’ megaphone. Alternative fucking facts.
More recently, history repeated itself as TV Globo acted like Fox News on nitro during the “Car Wash” political scandal that rocked the country last year. But now imagine Fox News ate and took the reach and power of all the other networks combined and became super powered propaganda. TV Globo led the charge against former president Dilma and played the key role in swaying public opinion for her impeachment. Not that she was innocent, but the aftermath at present has been much worse. Familiar, right? Whenever capitalism and democracy pollinate, the fruit is rotten. Glenn Greenwald may be a polarizing figure, but he was badass in exposing all of Globo’s bullshit; to the point he started the Brazilian wing of The Intercept (Greenwald lives in Rio).
Okay, well, the world is fucked. But you know this, so here are some reasons to give 3% a try for a little escapism. I mentioned it before, but the cast. The cast! The ensemble is tight. What the production team lacks in funds, they make up with talented young and older actors. The youngsters get their own Lost-like backstory vignettes letting us in on where they’re coming from and what makes them tick. Michele (Bianca Comparato) is fire and on a mission and her relationship with Fernando (Michel Gomes) is lovely. Fernando is the heart and inspiring force of the ensemble.
Did I mention he’s a POC in a wheelchair? Rafael (Rodolfo Valente) is annoyingly good for the POS you want to punch every time he says something.
Ezequiel (João Miguel) is a captivating complicated mess, and Aline (Viviane Porto) is powerful and also one of the most beautiful humans on Earth.
I can’t talk about Marco (Rafael Lozano) without spoiling, but holy shit, his episode is… it brings a certain kids book to mind that gave me nightmares. Zézé Motta (Nair) is a living legend and the queen of Afro-Brazilian cinema. Dandara! Last, but definitely not least, is the true star of this whole thing for me: Vaneza Oliveira as Joana.
She is incredible. Steals every scene. I kept thinking; “where have I seen her before?” And the answer is: nowhere. 3% IS HER DEBUT! What a casting gem. Remarkable.
Behind the cameras, there is also some good news. 3% started out as a film project turned web series from Pedro Aguilera. He had three directors on his team, one guy and two ladies, and made the good decision to keep the team together as they made the jump into Netflixlandia. While they added César Charlone (City of God) as the principal director with their heftier budget (still tiny compared to other Netflix shows), Daina Giannecchini and Dani Libardi get to tag in for directing responsibilities.
Trying to remain spoiler free, but one thing I will say is that the way the first season ends, it leaves the strong possibility that the white savior complex may be resolved. Which is awesome. And which is why I’m in for the second season and which is why you should swim through the sea of Netflix programing to find it and give it a shot. Take a little of my messy Brazilian history with you, turn on the Netflix, and know that what you’re about to watch may not be perfect, but it may also be the best Brazilian show ever filmed.