Under the skin

    RACISM: Systematic, legalized racism has defined Brazil as a country for centuries with recent legal changes doing little to change the picture

    One does not have to look far to find racism in Brazil, Tony Venturi’s hard-hitting documentary In My Skin shows. A glimpse at the racial profile of the country’s biggest metropolis São Paulo demonstrates how neatly centre – a reserve for wealthy white people – is ringed by poorer slums – the favelas where most black and indigenous people live.

    The last country in the western world to abolish slavery – in 1888 – policies to exclude blacks from education remained on the statute books far into the 20th century at a time when white immigrants from Europe were offered subsidized land priced to be beyond the reach of poor blacks.

    The country’s first Racial Equality law appeared on the statute books in 2010; an educational quotas act reserving half of all places at federal universities to black, indigenous, and low-income groups followed in 2012, and similar positive discrimination in government jobs – a 20% quota not until 2014.

    The evidence

    None of this has had much impact on a militarized police force that still routinely collates «poor, negro and vagrant» with «suspect» or reduce the high ration (70%) of blacks killed by the police compared with whites.

    Deaths of young blacks (20 and under) at the hands of the police have risen by 428% over the past two decades, from 1,450 in 1997 to 7,670 in 2017 (figures for whites are respectively: 772/1,563, leaving blacks with a 147% higher risk of being killed than whites.

    There are many disturbing stories in this heart-wrenching and challenging film with testimonies of many black and indigenous people to the casual racism they have faced.

    There is the doctor stopped by police who can’t believe him when he shows them his hospital identity card and the maid forced to use toilet paper that had been used – and then washed – by the white family for whom she worked.

    Most upsetting, perhaps, is the story of a white woman who adopted her niece’s young black son – only for him to die at the hands of a casual police beating sparked by nothing more than the fact he had no ID on him and could not name his grandparents.
    All these stories face us to consider racism in our own societies too.

    In My Skin-Brazil racism-documentary-MTR1
    In My Skin, a film by Toni Venturi


    Brazil’s racism may be more egregious than that in the US, but it is perhaps by having the courage to take the lid off something both so blatant and normalized that Ventura – the descendent of Italian immigrants in the early 20th century – is able to shine a light that will be the cause for reflection in audiences worldwide.

    There are many disturbing stories in this heart-wrenching and challenging film with testimonies of many black and indigenous people to the casual racism they have faced.

    Punctuated with inspiring songs performed by black and indigenous artists and including the story of a black model and artist who has chosen to live far from the city – partially to maintain her sanity in a society where she found herself regularly shadowed in clothing shops by store detectives – In My Skin works hard to get under the skin of its viewers.

    In My Skin-Brazil racism-documentary-MTR2
    In My Skin, a film by Toni Venturi


    A black transvestite woman challenges Ventura’s choice of crew – largely black and mixed-race – when she demands to know why his co-director (Val Gomes) is not named as a director. Another contributor – a write and activist – muses on what might happen if the black consciousness movement used some of the tactics against the whites that blacks have endured for so long: «What if we murdered a few whites in the same way? Would that change anything?»

    One can only shudder – as Ventura does, stating he does not know if he can include that comment in the finished film – at what a society where power and privilege are invested in being white would do if such a thing came to pass.

    Touching upon the conceptual and political hops and jumps long performed to justify racism – the commercialization of human relations and dehumanization of blacks that went hand in hand with the institution of slavery – Ventura pushes and probes at his subject in a way that at times reflects his own anxieties.

    Balanced and thorough, Ventura seems successful in answering a question he poses himself at the start of the film: «How does a white man make an anti-racist movie?» In My Skin is how.

    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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