So…Nate Parker’s movie, “Birth of a Nation” came out, and people are up in arms, but for other reasons. Sure, on the sides, people are having a conversation about mythmaking during long fights for liberation and dignity, along with the actions of Nat Turner himself for good and ill (example: Moviebob’s review where his verdict is that the movie is flawed, but has its moments), but…fucking Nate Parker, man. Sure, one can say that being black he is going to be under a lot more scrutiny than others (let’s not pretend that, as of this writing, we are in a world that treats every class, creed and ethnicity equally in cases of sexual assault), but here? Nah, what Nate Parker did is not cool, and everyone knows it. Even as someone who has long come to terms with, “Ethical consumption” in this current society being a daydream at best, I think that supporting, “Birth of a Nation” to support the idea of dignity for black folk is like buying, “organic” wild rice from Whole Foods and thinking you’re saving the world.
With that out of the way, it turns out there IS another liberation story that features a black man fighting against the institution of slavery. Except this time it features Capoeira, a fighting style best described as, “Dancing, except you are breaking every bone in the other person’s body”. That story centers on a man named Besouro, and this is his movie.
The movie is set in Brazil in the 1920s, where slavery is still legal and a boy naming himself, “Bosouro” (played by Aílton Carmon) grows into a powerful, heroic figure in the fight of liberation for himself and his people. Along the way, he falls in love with a woman named Dinora, a sassy and assertive character as far as narratives like this go. As he fights, the slavers become more brutal and ruthless in their methods, and Besouro is downed. But his spirit (literally) lives in, taking control of Dinora and enabling her to kick ass, and then being reincarnated in the body of another young boy, who at the end of the film looks at the slavers with a menacing, determined eye.
Ok, so you may have noticed that my description of the movie makes this sound like a cross of a simple liberation story interlaced with Afrocentric mysticism. Well, one need to look no further than the legend of Besouro himself to find out why. And it is with these depections of Besouro interacting with, and becoming, a god figure that the movie really comes to life. Sure, the movie has decent fight scenes, but the way this movie intertwines this mystical perspective with the struggle of Brazil’s black population is a sight to behold. They give what is a pretty standard story of liberation a sense of collective grounding and also transcendence, a difficult balance the movie manages with a modern handheld camera moviemaking style.
Such a style, however, can be a blessing and a curse. Entire sequences maintain a sense of intimacy and awe, such as Besouro’s courting of Dinora and an extended sequence of Besouro harnessing, and becoming, nature’s forces. When it comes to the fight scenes, however? Well…they’re not, “Taken 3” levels of bad, but they also don’t have the balletic chaos of, “The Raid”. Sure, you can definitely see and hear the impact of the Capoeira in this movie, but one is left wanting more. Also, another complaint is that the slavers are very conventional bad guys, the equivalent of paper stands with racial slurs coming out of them. A lot can be said of Quentin Tarentino’s tendency to patrionize the very blackness he exploits in his films, at least Leonardo di Caprio in, “Django Unchained” makes a horrifying impression as a slave owner. Then again, seeing slave owners be treated with the same sort of disposability we give to, say, Nazis is a definite sign that we are moving forward as human species (hopefully).
A bit can also be said about Dinora, played here by Jéssica Barbosa, who goes through a lot of ugliness in this film, patronized by slavers and ultimately being relegated to the role of a simple mother of Besouro’s son, who could be Besouro himself. Inbetween all of that, however, is a role Jessica herself embodies with a lot of charm and assertiveness. Even if her character is ultimately relegated to a typical role, and even if her agency is debatable by (she starts out as a defender of the village, then ultimately gets the physical equivalent of a GameShark through Besouro’s spirit and is finally able to kick slaver ass), the movie’s aforementioned intertwining of mysticism and a quest for freedom gives what would normally be questionable story beats a broad, “all for one and one for all” structure that makes every character, even the bad guys and the background extras, an important role in the legend of Besouro. Besouro is in all of us, this movie says, and he brings us all together. May he continue to do so as we fight for dignity and freedom today.
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