Brazilian soap operas get their first black lead actor
The introduction of André Gurgel, who plays a more ambiguous character rather than the typical all-good or all-bad supporting role for black actors, indicates the growing influence of Brazil's black and mixed-race population.
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But Brazil is changing. As Brazil’s middle class grows, so do the fortunes of its black and mixed-race populations. A recent study by Brazil’s Fundação Getúlio Vargas said that about half of blacks and mestiços ("mixed" in Portuguese) belong to the middle class. Brazil’s 2010 census showed that the nation became, for the first time, “majority-minority,” meaning that less than half of Brazilians called themselves white and those identifying as black or mixed grew.Skip to next paragraph
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“Brazilian telenovelas denied [for years] our racial diversity,” says Mr. Zito Araújo. But he sees the growing movement for mixed-race Brazilians to call themselves black and a rising esteem for interracial relationships – “It’s starting to be chic” – as positive steps for integration. “It makes people admire this [black] middle class in Brazil.”
André Santana, who worked with an all-black theater group while Ramos was a member in their native state of Bahia in Brazil's northeast, says he and fellow actors have had mixed feelings on the popular novela role.
“We are divided. We commemorate it [but] it’s a very ambiguous feeling,” Santana says of Ramos’s prominent but hypersexualized character, who has an alcoholic father. “We have a step to the front because we have an actor on [the mainstream channel] Globo, but we have two back because it is such a negative role.”
But Ramos, who previously played a favela (shantytown) resident who becomes romantically involved with a rich white woman, argues that this ambiguous character of Gurgel is a sign of progress.
“Usually it happens like this [for black actors]: a character is [either] on the margin of society, is excluded, is occupying a subaltern function; or a guy is perfect, a guy who is a lawyer, who is a great father of his family, is marvelous. And the middle ground, which is exactly where the human being is, who's not so great nor so bad, [is where] this character is inaugurated” in this current soap opera, Ramos says. “I think there's a lack of characters offered to black actors that have this humanity, that have a way of being imperfect.” The novela's author has said he wrote the role specifically this way, so that Ramos's character would avoid racial issues and would not be a wholly sympathetic character.
Ramos says the next frontier for integration is what doesn't show on the screen. “There's something on the American side [of media] that I think is great, which we still don't have here, which is that integration isn't just done with actors but with directors, producers, casting directors, cameraman.”