Masters at the Movies

Masters at the Movies, Take 20: Marshall Eakin Looks at Brazilian Identities through a Cinematic Lens

Robert Brent Toplin, May 2012

In this issue historian Marshall C. Eakin focuses on the significance of an enormously popular Brazilian film, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. That movie, based on a book by Brazil's famous novelist, Jorge Amado, offered more than just an entertaining story about life in the northern coastal state of Bahia. As Eakin points out, both the book and the film inspired discussions about racial, social, and cultural mixing in Brazil. The story created a generally favorable impression of national identity. Gilberto Freyre, a Brazilian sociologist, presented an influential description of this mixture as it pertained to race. He characterized Brazil as a "racial democracy"—a society in which racial concerns were of minimal importance. He contrasted the Brazilian situation with conditions in the United States, where prejudice, discrimination, and racial violence had been prevalent. Freyre's idea about a distinctive national identity, supported by other scholars in the middle of the 20th century, became a source of Brazilian pride.

Eakin notes, however, that in the 1970s, when Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands broke box office records, some Brazilians were beginning to denounce the "myth" of racial democracy. Academics, such as Florestan Fernandes, Octavio Ianni, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who later became president of Brazil), claimed the myth of racial democracy obscured a troubled record of oppression, exploitation, and prejudice in Brazilian society.

Some scholars compared race relations in the United States and Brazil, noting, ironically, that the history of racial prejudice in the United States made efforts to combat discrimination easier than in Brazil. Americans were aware of their society's record of racial injustice. By the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, many of them demanded change. Leaders in Washington were able to attack discrimination through civil rights legislation, bills that promoted affirmative action, and other measures. In an influential book, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1972) Carl Degler, an American historian, developed an intriguing comparative history. He suggested U.S. society was achieving greater progress than Brazil in combating racial injustice.

Recently, however, there have been some improvements in Brazilian society. The government of President Lula da Silva (2003–2010) inaugurated several important reforms designed to open opportunities for racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged. The current government of President Dilma Rousseff has continued those efforts. Brazil is still a long way from achieving "racial democracy," but the country offers better opportunities for people of color than it did a few decades ago. Currently many Brazilian universities have some kind of preferential system for admitting students, and the nation's public universities have a growing population of dark-skinned and underprivileged students.

The "Masters at the Movies" column features essays on film by distinguished historians. The contributor in this issue is Marshall C. Eakin, professor of Brazilian and Latin American history at Vanderbilt University. Although Eakin's work spans all of Brazilian history, his major publications have concentrated on economic and business history, industrialization, and the processes of nationalism and nation-building—particularly in the 20th century. Eakin has published several books, including Brazil: The Once and Future Country (1997), Tropical Capitalism: The Industrialization of Belo Horizonte, Brazil (2001), and The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures (2007). His latest book project is "One People, One Nation: Brazilian Identity in the Twentieth Century."

Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board. He edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized and developed.