Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2011
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Natal Da Portela, Denying Brazil, Cinema de Preto, Sara Gomez, Cinco vezes Favela, Abdias do Nascimento: Memoria Negra
-This is part of a 2-disc set involving Afro-Brazilian Leaders.
-Abdias do Nascimento was born in Franca, Sao Paolo State, Brazil in 1914. He was a two time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, UNESCO Toussaint Louverture Prize for Extraordinary Service to the Cause of Combatting Racism and Racial Discriminiation in 2004, Brazil Bar Association Human Rights Prize in 2005, taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and was the first Black Brazilian politician who fought for civil rights in his home country.
-This documentary was directed by Aida Marques. She studied film in Paris and also directed the movie Expedito back in 2006.
-Ruth de Souza makes an appearance in this film. She was the first Black Brazilian woman to act at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janiero and was a Black Experimental Theater original cast member when Abdias do Nascimento invented that. de Souza has been in movies and shows such as Aleijadinho, O Clone, and The Landowner’s Daughter. She sadly passed away in 2019 at the age of 98 years old in Copacabana neighborhood of Rio.
After doing my Alternate Disney August project, I feel that I’m back to my usual movie reviews more or less. It’s been a while since I reviewed a documentary and longer since I’ve reviewed anything from the biggest country in South America. It’s probably been more prominent this year, but I’ve been delving into so many documentaries involving the African diaspora around the world. ArtMattan has CERTAINLY delivered in that regard when it comes to the documentaries and even their narrative films they’ve licensed for several years. I got to touch on Latin America this year with Tango Negro and The Last Rumba of Papa Montero for example which were incredible watches. This time we get to talk about a very multi-disciplined individual who managed to create things as well as fighting for positive change in his home country while challenging so many conventions.
We get to cover an innovative individual? This is Iridium Eye, so these people in history are ever so welcome to be featured on this blog whenever I get the chance to do some learning on this subject.
Abdias do Nascimento is a historical documentary involving the man of the same name. In his lifetime, he was a soldier, playwright, painter, activist, actor, educator, politician (federal deputy and a senator), poet, and author. While these things are noted, one of his biggest achievements was creating the Black Experimental Theater in 1944 which was the first Black-owned theater company in Brazil and featured Black actors who were rejected because of their race by the bigger theater companies in the country. This snowballed into kickstarting the careers of several actors and playwrights who would eventually be featured on other plays, TV, and movies while this project was a statement that Black actors can be seen as proficient and effective in their talents while creating their own stories. During this time much less his life time, do Nascimento would fight for civil rights for the Black Brazilian community whether it was through his plays, art, or with direct action which got him into trouble with the government. However, he was seen as an icon for his work and managed to teach about anti-racism in multiple countries. He was interviewed and is seen with some of his peers, former students, and people who were heavily influenced by him. Some of the college groups in Brazil were disappointed that his works weren’t mentioned in the textbooks and wanted to spread awareness about him. do Nascimento recalls his life’s work and remembers the harsh times during some dictatorships, racism, and the denial of said racism.
I would certainly chalk up another example of “Why didn’t I learn about this person in school?” while watching this documentary. Sure, I didn’t learn that much about Brazil besides whatever geography or world cultures class back then, but the existence of Abdias do Nascimento was very inspiring. It’s great with him being a multi-disciplined man with art, leadership, education, politics, and activism. These stories from his friends, family, former students, and professors were quite fascinating and it never gets into hagiography territory when they mention the times he was arrested or him not always being the easiest person to get along with despite his intentions. Speaking of the prison fact, before he created the Black Experimental Theater, he created the Theater of the Convicts. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. He actually taught prisoners (a good portion of which were in solitary confinement) how to act and even sing in musicals briefly which just blew my mind. The main inspiration behind Black Experimental Theater was when him and his former poetry group Santa Hermandad Orquidea (Portuguese for Holy Brotherhood of the Orchid) wanted to explore Latin America. When they were watching an adaptation of The Emperor Jones while in Lima, Peru, do Nascimento was incensed that the main character was in blackface (saying nothing about how the original Broadway run had the main actor having a minstrel background), and wanted to make an all-Black theater company featuring actors, playwrights, tech, and other personnel of that persuasion to tell their own stories. That was a controversial act back then and it added to his passions of calling out racism despite Brazil’s rampant denial of it then. There was also a bittersweet aspect to this documentary since he sadly died the same year the film would be released at the age of 97. That really gives it a more serious edge even with the material there. The production did have some creative things with the aspect ratio changes, non-parallel split screens or symbols from the Adrinka Code which gives the documentary a darkly poetic edge since Adrinka means “goodbye” in the Twi language considering the death of do Nascimento. The presentation was very informative with the various interviews and hearing things from this grandmaster playwright/politician/poet.
The Abdias do Nascimento documentary doesn’t always match the legacy of that man. While there were creative production choices, I will admit that this was more of a low-budget work. If I wasn’t aware of do Nascimento’s time of living, I would’ve thought this was filmed five or even ten years prior to when it was actually made with the camera aesthetics and some dated post-production. I noticed subtitle errors like misspellings and it got embarrassing at times with the English hardsubs translating things with the names and clearly doesn’t match. One misspelling that did bother me was the word “Yoruba” spelled as “Ioruba” as well as using weird alternate spellings of words in different Nigerian languages like “Ase” typed as “Axe” (it’s pronounced Ah-Shay, for those that don’t know). Speaking of that African ethnic group and language, I need to go off-tangent here and say screw the UK company Timbuktu for trademarking the word “Yoruba”! There was certainly a lot to cover given the body of his work, but there were times it felt a bit scattershot from topic to topic. Sometimes they’ll talk about his time in the military before transitioning to his poems (aptly read by different people though) before they interview him again. I was also surprised they didn’t mention him teaching in America that much besides one brief interview from Leroi Caldwell Johnson. Going back to the production, there was a limited amount of interview shots with tons of talking head shots with various close-ups or side profiles. They should’ve made the filming as diverse as the interviewees.
This was a very educational and quality watch from ArtMattan’s catalogue. It was very inspirational hearing about how Abdias do Nascimento used his art and activism to fight against racial injustice in Brazil. He had great intentions with both self-dignity as well as Black people telling their own stories. Even other ethnic groups will find jewels with his ideology on eliminating racism as well as creating plays and poems. I do think the cinematography should’ve improved and not look so aged or cheap at times. This would be a great watch for a history course, theater class, or a Black history project, but if one wants to watch it by themselves, that would be great. I certainly recommend Abdias do Nascimento. Now, I have to go find his works.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like documentaries about overlooked Black historical figures.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want top-notch cinematography for your documentaries.
-Very insightful history and interviews
-Inspirational content and a breadth of subjects covered
-Has a great balance of bringing hard truths (especially with racism) with a feeling of inclusivity
-Dated effects and cinematography
-Misspelled subtitles at times
-Can jump from one topic to the next without warning
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Advisory: Abdias do Nascimento would be best for teens and up. There is some swearing and the N-word is used during a table read of actors going over their lines. The topic of racism does come up multiple times and it gets nuanced with overt and covert examples. Some of the play footage has some sensual content and some of the artwork has nudity in a couple of the montages.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Abdias do Nascimento is property of ArtMattan. The picture is from EBC and is property of EBC.