A thousand portraits of a loyal man

The new film about Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella is one dimensional. It should not distract from Marighella's legacy.

Still from film Marighella (2020).

With the support and incentive of the US government, a wave of military coups swept South America in the 1960s. Brazil was no exception. In 1963, then American president John F. Kennedy made the aim clear: to “prevent Brazil from becoming another Cuba.” Although Brazilian president at the time, João Goulart, was a leftist with an eager eye for structural reforms, he was a critic of both the Cuban and US governments. Nevertheless, in 1964 the US navy stationed a fleet of warships on the Brazilian coast and on April 1st, a 20-year era of military state-sanctioned terror began in the country.

Marighella, the film directed by Wagner Moura, tells the story of Carlos Marighella—the most important figure in the resistance against that state terror in Brazil and an inspirational icon for revolutionaries worldwide. Born in Salvador, Bahia, in 1911, to the free daughter of an enslaved Sudanese woman and an Italian immigrant father, Marighella became a Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) militant at the age of 23. Jailed twice during the first dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (1930 to 1945), Marighella was elected to Congress in 1945, and served there until the Cold War era, when the PCB was banned. After visiting China in the 1950s, at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party, and as political tensions in Latin America hardened following the Cuban Revolution, Marighella began to doubt and disagree with the PCB executive over the timing and degree of revolutionary actions. When the 1964 military coup occurred and the PCB didn’t have a practical response to it, Marighella left the party. In 1967 he participated in the Latin American Solidarity Organization Conference in Cuba and returned to Brazil that same year to establish the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN). Under the political influence of Marxism-Leninism and inspired by Che Guevara’s foquismo, the ALN soon became the most influential armed organization in the resistance. Consequently, Marighella was declared “public enemy number one” by the state.

After dropping off the radar and out of the mainstream political discourse for two decades, Marighella’s name has resurfaced in public debate in the past ten years. Just as the era of dictatorships and its admirers (including the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro) have become a sinister specter for the left, so has Marighella become one for the right.

Even before its release, Marighella the film took on a political life of its own. President Bolsonaro, who has often publicly praised the Brazilian dictatorship and its agents of terror, has accused the film’s director and producers of praising a “bloodthirsty terrorist,” while using the bureaucracy of the national cinema agency to delay the film’s release, originally scheduled for late 2019. A new release date in May 2020 was further delayed by the onset of the global pandemic. The film’s director, Wagner Moura, has publicly voiced his opposition to Bolsonaro and the impression that I got from before and after watching Marighella is that it is a response to Bolsonaro’s election, his praises of the dictatorship and his attacks on Marighella. However, it is also a gift to the liberal left in Brazil, as an enforcement of their ideology at a time when they, because of their own sins, have lost hegemony to Bolsonaro.

As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched Of The Earth, “colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” Of course the Algerian liberation struggle, which Fanon was analyzing when he wrote these words, is far different from the situation the Brazilian anti-dictatorship struggle found itself in during the military regime. But I am concerned with violence. I am concerned with how violence is used and how the people are subjected to its simplicity. To what Jean-Paul Sartre mistakenly concluded from Fanon’s writings, that they were “an endorsement of violence itself,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak responded:

Fanon insists that the tragedy is that the very poor is reduced to violence, because there is no other response possible to an absolute absence of response and an absolute exercise of legitimized violence from the colonizers. […] many of us think that the real disaster in colonialism lies in destroying the minds of the colonized and forcing them to accept mere violence—allowing no practice of freedom, so that these minds     cannot build when apparent decolonization has been achieved.” When it comes to the people on its very receiving end, violence can only be either observed or absorbed.

The Brazilian left, on the other hand, has tended to transform resistance violence into a political taboo, and has even put itself in official opposition to those who have found liberation or revolution through any means necessary. Yet, curiously, it attempts to romanticize a few historical revolutionaries, such as Marighella and Che Guevara, while shying away from contextualizing the means these same figures resorted to. After all, violence is at the core of Carlos Marighella’s political tragedy. He was a highly intelligent man and knew that the laws of liberal democracy could not be the drivers of political action, because those same laws are what reduce the people to violence. Yet, in the film, the most violent acts of resistance are delegated to a specific fictional character, who seems almost erratic and “too radical” to be reasonable. Recall Erik Killmonger, the character in Black Panther, who evoked a similar feeling: the more revolutionary, the less reasonable. Since the 1980s, Brazil has been on edge with post-dictatorship fright—as if we are always walking on eggshells, as if we should give the greatest of values to liberal democracy because of the ghost of the dictatorship—making it hard to surpass the contradictions of bourgeois democracy.

For 21 years in Brazil, the order of the day was that if you were an artist, a student, a journalist, if you were politically engaged on any level, or simply by virtue of being Black or Native, you risked being jailed without trial, tortured, and killed. The film fails to depict that daily reality. It fails to expose the extent of the state-sanctioned terrorism. If it was not for the brief explanatory text contextualizing the era at the beginning of the film, one could easily mistake it for standard bad cops/good robbers cinema. One wonders if Marighella and his group would have been ignored by the state if they had not robbed banks and trains.

“Down with the fascist military dictatorship! Long live democracy! Long live the Communist Party!” yelled Marighella just before being shot in the chest inside a cinema theater and surviving, in one of the most iconic moments of his real life story. On screen, Marighella is limited to just “Long live democracy!” Indeed, the film shies away from radical language (in it, Marighella only uses the word “communism” twice and only in dialogue with the head of the Brazilian Communist Party and avoids describing himself as Marxist-Leninist, as the real life Marighella proudly did). Marighella, the film is more aligned with a liberal left that shies away from the radical in defense of bourgeois democracy. It was with that mentality that a leftist government invaded Haiti and passed anti-terrorism laws in Brazil to criminalize “violent protests.” I wish I could say it is a less widespread mentality, but it is not.

Like outgoing President Donald Trump, Brazil’s current leader and his supporters favor criminalizing communist and anti-fascist organizations. So, the liberal left has been trying to dodge radical mobilizations in order to attract neoliberals and moderate conservatives into a “pro-democracy” block against Bolsonaro. This tendency of the right, to set the rules of the political game for the left has a historic precedent in Brazil. With the beginning of the military dictatorship there was a surge of right-wing paramilitary groups (just as with Mussolini’s Blackshirts militia in Italy) and they were responsible for many terrorist attacks. Attributing the attacks to the left served as an excuse for the state to intensify its authoritarian abuses, such as the infamous AI-5 (Institutional Act Number 5), that shut down Congress, abolished political and legal rights, the Constitution itself, and institutionalized torture.

When democracy was on the horizon, in the 1980s, and general elections were becoming inevitable, the military dictators in power were concerned that the country could go into the hands of the radical left. They searched for someone on the left who could play a controlled part in the democratic elections, who would not present credible threats to liberal democracy, but would undermine the then presidential candidate, Leonel Brizola, a more leftist candidate who had just returned from political exile. They found the personification of that “controllable left” in Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who endures as the face of the left in Brazil today. During its 13 years in power, with fragile policies and political office nominations, “Lulism” managed to hijack and placate most of the biggest social movements, civil organizations, and labor unions, the same institutions with the potential to put up a fearful fight.

Mano Brown—a member of the greatest hip hop group to come out of Brazil, Racionais MC’s—was first cast to play Carlos Marighella in the film, but due to scheduling conflicts could not pursue the role. Seu Jorge, a famous Brazilian singer, was cast instead. Carlos Marighella was a light-skinned Black man, closer in looks to Mano Brown than the darker-skinned Seu Jorge. This casting choice became a controversy in itself, with some Black activists accusing the filmmakers of colorism, and the left as a whole saying it would be impossible to picture Jorge as Marighella. The right simply denied Marighella’s Blackness altogether. In the lyrics of their 2012 song, Mil Faces de Um Homem Legal (A Thousand Portraits of a Loyal Man) dedicated to Carlos Marighella, Racionais call him “the mulatto superhero.” Mulatto is not a race, but Marighella did not know that precisely because he was not dark skinned. He called himself a mulatto because the unconscious distancing from Blackness by light-skinned Blacks is part of the Brazilian white supremacy project. This is not to say that Marighella was ignorant about race in Brazil, but he did not possess Black Consciousness in the deeper sense, as conceptualized by Steve Biko and others. Hence, choosing the actor to play him onscreen should also be seen through the lens of its political context.

Brown would inadvertently invoke the spirit of the more radical Marighella during the 2018 election campaign when he was invited to speak at a rally for the Partida dos Trabalhadores (PT), the Brazilian Workers’ Party (and the party of Lula). There, Brown, who has been an inspiration for generations of Black people (including the one writing this piece), accused the left of forgetting everyday people when they were in power, and suggested that the threat of a Bolsonaro government was the price they were paying for it. The “former” Marighella was accusing the left of being unfaithful to the real Marighella. Brown did not get it right, though. The liberal left has the Brazilian (working-class, poor and black) people exactly where it always wanted them to be: blackmailed by the nightmare of the dictatorship ghost, and deluded by the PT’s “Brazilian Dream.”

Although the film Marighella paints only one portrait of the revolutionary Carlos Marighella, it is a relevant film that should inspire us to confront our contradictions, to look for alternatives to the deadly maze we have been stuck in for so long now, and to seek the revolutionary changes that Marighella gave his life for. We do not have much time or choice. Every 23 minutes a Black person is murdered in Brazil. Between Marielle Franco, new threats of military coup, and Madalena Gordiano, we have not missed Marighella enough.

Further Reading

Going to the Mall in Brazil

Since last December, Brazilian shopping malls have become the stage for a new style of youth gathering: the rolezinho. Roughly translated as “little excursions” or outings, the rolezinhos can be characterized as planned meetings (via social network) of a large group of youth from poor neighborhoods, with the intent of seeing each other, flirting, eating and drinking at McDonald’s, taking pictures to post on Facebook, and simply having fun.