Barack Obama is not a fan of Black Orpheus. In his memoir Dreams of My Father, the outgoing President recalls that it was his mother’s favourite film, but when she took him to see it, he “suddenly realised that the depiction of the childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white, middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.” Why did the normally optimistic Obama have such an aversion to this film? First, let’s rewind a bit.
Black Orpheus is a 1959 film that relocates the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. More specifically, the film is actually a loose adaptation of Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes’ play Orfeu da Conceição. Black Orpheus features an almost all-black cast, and went on to win the Palme d’Or. The film was a hit because of the energetic dance sequences, but more importantly the bossa nova soundtrack. This style of music, which evolved from samba, was exposed to the world thanks to the film, and became internationally popular in the 1960s. The film’s composers – Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim – were instrumental in the development of the genre with their work on the Elizete Cardoso album Canção do Amor Demaisin in 1958, often considered the first bossa nova album.
In putting forward a positive image of Brazilian culture, Black Orpheus could in turn be seen as a positive example of world cinema. But such a view is simplistic. Despite its Brazilian setting, Black Orpheus is a French production, directed by Marcel Camus and produced by Sacha Gordine, who scrapped the music of the play in favour of a new soundtrack that he could profit from internationally. The mere fact of a European production crew is not problematic in and of itself. But when watching Black Orpheus, it is impossible to divorce the film from its European perspective. This film exoticises its black cast through a European gaze. When Eurydice first arrives in Rio by boat, Camus films the city from the viewpoint of a tourist. A montage of vendors selling their exotic wares seems to say “look at how different this is!” Again, a touristic gaze is not essentially bad; what it shows is how Black Orpheus is a film by Europeans for Europeans, rather than black Brazilians telling their own story.
This Western perspective is exemplified by the opening seconds of the film. The first image is a marble relief of Orpheus and Eurydice. It signifies the Western myth, ancient and rarefied. This image then explodes to reveal the vibrant performance of black Brazilians. It is an effective opening that captures the excitement of the music. However, it also establishes an essentialist binary between Western and non-Western identities. The West is quiet and dignified, while everything else is loud and chaotic. This characterisation of non-Western culture is evident in contemporary reviews of the film by Western publications. The critic for the New York Times described “frenzied dancing and violent costumes,” the given adjectives connoting something unrefined. The New Yorker review went even further, its critic mischaracterising the performers as “untrained negro actors” – when in fact, much of the cast were part of a black experimental theatre group founded by Afro-Brazilian scholar Abdias do Nascimento: a far cry from the assumptions of Western critics.
Despite these misconceptions, the blackness of the film was emphasised by the European filmmakers, who changed the title from Orfeu da Conceição to Orfeu Negro. This had an historical precedent in the phenomenon of negrophilia in France. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s, white French bohemians embraced black culture. The impact of this trend was ambivalent. While it did valorise black culture, it was evident that white people were fetishizing a fantasy of black life which they found to be exotic. This trend can be traced even further back to the Primitivism of 19th century European culture, when artists like Paul Gauguin took inspiration from African art. Again, this was highly problematic as this European attitude towards black people reflected a mixture of condescending paternalism and fetishized exoticism.
The attitude had not waned during the filming of Black Orpheus, as Camus was reported to have said that black people lived in favelas to flee from civilization. Such mystification elides the socioeconomic factors that produced the favelas – most of which can traced back to the history of slavery in Brazil. According to Robert Stam, black Brazilians are descended to some degree from slaves brought over from Africa. When slavery was abolished in 1888, the masters were emancipated from responsibility for their former slaves. The newly liberated black Brazilians were then faced with economic competition from an influx of European immigrants. This eventually led to a lack of black Brazilians in positions of power, and an abundance of them in favelas. Camus’s ignorance towards poverty is reflected in his portrayal of the favelas. There are no mosquitoes, no open sewers. The favela of Black Orpheus is a rustic oasis of music, drenched with golden sunlight. It is a simple fantasy for the white middle-class Westerner.
Likewise, bossa nova expert Ruy Castro notes that bossa nova was developed by white middle-class people, and did not have anything in common with the kind of music that would have been played in the predominantly black favelas at the time of the film – so the music itself was also part of the fantasy. Brazilian filmmakers such as Glauber Rocha criticised Black Orpheus for its ignorance of social realities in the favelas. A more socially-conscious remake was eventually released in 2000. This was directed by Carlos Diegues, who was not a fan of the French original.
These issues with Black Orpheus are typical of Western filmmakers attempting to film stories in non-Western settings. It is one of the symptoms of transnational cinema. And it has not faded away. Critic Siddhant Adlakha notes that in films like Slumdog Millionaire there is an “‘exotic’ cultural disconnect between the storytellers who are perceived as ‘the norm’ and subjects whose experiences can only be recognized if there is, in fact, a disconnect between worlds, leading to the lack of commonality becoming an inadvertent focal point.” None of this is to say that Black Orpheus is a bad film. It possesses an energy that appeals to this day. But it remains important, as 21st century viewers, to interrogate what it so exemplifies: a damaging and inaccurate Western gaze.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Black Orpheus is available from January 9th. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy. You can purchase your copy here.