It took centuries for Brazil to wake up from its dream of racial democracy. The country’s cinematic and televisual products have thus made consistent efforts to admit to and mourn past injustices, as well as respond to new economic realities, such as blacks increasingly sharing the same public spaces as whites and some of the latter’s rights as domestic laborers. But while this conjuncture has produced emotionally engaging work like The Second Mother, it’s also led to the blatant didacticism of Casa Grande.
Fellipe Barbosa’s film opens with a long take of the titular house, the portentous whiteness of its structure only disturbed by the white man bathing in one of the Jacuzzis adjacent to its swimming pool. Surely he’s the housemaster. When the man’s teenage son, Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), sneaks into the maid’s quarters for a sex talk and to share a cigarette with her, it becomes clear that this house lies on some rather precarious, if not rotten, grounds. Its inhabitants cannot afford to live up to its image.
Also clear is that the critique of naturalized power asymmetry is devoid of nuance. The quietness of the housemaster’s bathing in front of his home gives way to a blunt series of pedagogical discussions about affirmative action and welfare. Casa Grande is structured like a series of classroom debates with some illustrative family melodrama playing out in between them. It doesn’t help that we know exactly where each and every character, as well as Barbosa, stand from the very beginning. Like the dark-skinned girl supposedly from the wrong side of town who Jean meets on the bus. She’s only a device for the bourgeois characters’ true colors to spell themselves out through speech: glib white reactionaries versus enlightened minorities.
Barbosa continues white Brazilian filmmakers’ tendency to depict poor people as sexually liberated folk whose only idea of a good time is dancing the forró, that traditional music style stereotypically associated with Brazil’s economically disenfranchised northeast. The film also features the predictable scene—an overplayed soap-opera staple—of a privileged white kid entering a forró dancehall to find out that poor people are deliriously happy in spite of their abject misery. The message seems to be that we need the spice of the poor to snap out of our privileged ennui.
Other moments that play off of the everyday terrors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie include a kidnaping hoax that takes place via telephone, Jean being told that if he takes public transportation he should keep some money on his body reserved for muggers, and Jean’s father telling him that black women’s bodies are “an acquired taste.” These scenes may shock American audiences, or make them chuckle, but for Brazilians they amount to the most obvious rehashing of stereotypes. The real scandal may thus not be the collective white privilege that the film exposes, but the way it uses its critique as a means to woo the legitimizing gaze of international audiences.