Scrolling through TikTok recently, a post titled “Top ten countries with the largest African diaspora” caught my attention. None of the countries on the list were a revelation. However, something else in the post was shocking. I was baffled by the surprise of many mainly African Americans about Brazil being the top “African country” outside Africa. Brazil has the largest African diaspora in the world (roughly 100 million people). In all of Latin America, there are 250 million African descendants. In comparison, the US has 40 million.
The documentary film Rolê—Histórias dos Rolezinhos by Vladimir Seixas, an Afro-Brazilian filmmaker and Emmy Award nominee, speaks about the racial divide in Brazil. His films use sharp commentary to expose social, political, and cultural inequalities, often sparkling conversations about race, class, and gender within Brazilian society. Those issues are often intertwined, with race being the pillar of all other oppressions. The documentary discusses social events, called Rolezinhos (little rides), which began around 2000 and saw marginalized youth (mostly black) occupying wealthy (mostly white) shopping centers around the country.
These “shopping centers” (purposely named in English, highlighting class exclusion as most Brazilians do not speak it) proliferated in Brazil’s biggest cities at the beginning of the 1980s. After years of dictatorship, when the lower classes of Brazil were severely oppressed, Afro-Brazilians began to enter the middle class. As repression eased, the white middle class demanded a separation. Shopping centers were a white haven; the last stronghold of the slavocracy that began five centuries earlier in 1527, when the first African slave ship landed in the South American giant.
As an Afro-Brazilian, I recall how those places were advertised as beacons of cleanliness, purity, and consumption during my childhood. Shopping centers were aspirational buildings where the “best members of our society” transited. As a teenager, I would walk around the shops hoping to have my humanity recognized, normalized, and accepted. It did not happen. I was not welcome. Every interaction was accompanied by facial expressions of superiority, disgust, or both. Every store holder, every shop attendant and every segurança (security guard) had one objective: To expel my body from that place.
Ironically, but in line with the history of Brazil, the only other black persons in those establishments were the seguranças. For example, Brazil, unlike the US, had a majority black population for most of the period of Portuguese colonial empire. In cities like Rio de Janeiro in the year of 1820 the population was half African and the other half was Indigenous Brazilians and Europeans.
To assert control, the Portuguese divided to conquer. Due to their fewer numbers, the colonizers were required to hire Africans to maintain control of the majority black African population. There were many reasons why an Afro-Brazilian would temporarily be working in partnership with the Portuguese: some Africans purchased their own freedom; others who were born in Brazil would have small advantages; some were given preferential treatment for being light skinned (conceived through rape by Portuguese men); and yet others were highly skilled and therefore useful for the Crown. Those lines of “freedom” were often blurry and, most importantly, they were easily erased by the exercise of white privilege.
Unlike the US, where minority status cultivated a sense of collaboration for collective African success (and where places like black Wall Street and historically black universities existed), in Brazil, there were incentives to keep us divided and focused on our individual subsistence.
Rolé—Histórias dos Rolezinhos is a counter-narrative to the atrocities of the past, immersing the viewer inside the recent history of Brazil. Interestingly, the physical act of black bodies entering the shopping center is a physical counter-narrative itself. To exist in these places where our visibly African bodies are supposed to be invisible, serving, or muted is an act of resistance. There are a few scenes in the film when the camera catches the faces of the middle class shoppers (white) and onlookers to the Rolezinhos (mostly black) protests, and we can see the disgust on their faces. Propelled by ubiquitous internet access, youth angst, and the desire to be seen, those movements sent a message to the white middle class. Years later, that white middle class would swing the pendulum with rage and resentment, electing the “law and order” government of Jair Bolsonaro.
Some of the dialogue during the film involves Afro-Brazilian men and women talking among and about themselves and their communities. The viewer observes the empowerment and black joy in those interactions. The film attempts to showcase more than the oppression of Afro-Brazilians; it invites the viewer to see that notwithstanding we exist and experience happiness, pride, and dignity.
The film uses realistic theater performances to add lyricism: After losing their homes to government displacement, and while everything burns around them, two men talk about the past and their wishes for the future; a group of women artists use their bodies as instruments of public space occupation, embodying stereotypes to showcase the absurdity of it all. Traditionally, Brazilian films and documentaries about Afro-descendants are embedded with paternalistic and patronizing tropes. In those films, we are observed, almost anthropologically, by white leftist intellectuals who hold an inflated sense of superiority.
Afro-descendant Vladimir Seixas looks sideways, outward to the hegemonic Brazilian narrative, and inward to himself and our people. His sensibility is developed by genuine proximity, respect, and understanding. You can almost hear him whispering to the people he interviews, “I see you because they won’t.”
The film ends with the brutal murder of João Alberto Silveira Freitas by white seguranças at a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre during the peak of the pandemic. On November 20 2020, Brazilian black consciousness day, Freitas was beaten to death. The symbolism of the murder sparked outrage and protest across the country.
Rolê—Histórias dos Rolezinhos offers a glimpse of Afro-Brazilian resistance to Africans elsewhere in the diaspora. No one should be surprised we exist. We have much to learn from each other. It holds a period of time under scrutiny, so in the future, our descendants will understand that we suffered, but we also resisted.