Brazil's Celebrity-Activist: The Megastar Actor Putting Race Center Stage
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because show business can shape public opinion.
By Catherine Osborn
For the Brazilian version of The Mountaintop, an American play that imagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night, actor-director Lázaro Ramos, 38, added a line from contemporary politics. During a monologue he delivers on race relations, Ramos, playing Dr. King, quotes an activist from Brazil’s anti-police-violence movement React or Be Killed: “In this country, Black people die like cockroaches.” Ramos’ retuning of the play to Brazil’s present has packed theaters since it premiered two years ago, and has extended its run for a third year.
Ramos, the star and co-writer of Mister Brau, the first prime-time soap opera about a wealthy Black family in Brazil, is one of his country’s most decorated actors (he’s won more than 60 awards for his theater and film work). It’s a status that’s pulled him to the center of conversations taking place inside Globo, the media conglomerate airing the series, about how Blacks are portrayed. And he has just published In My Skin, a self-deprecating memoir laying out his observations and doubts about racial progress in Brazil. Drawing on insights from figures he’s met over 12 years as host of a deep-dive interview program, Ramos writes that entertainment can be a potent force for changing attitudes.
And hunger for change has been rocking the discussion of race and racism in Brazil, a country saddled by its history of colonialism and slavery — and with the largest Black population outside Africa. It’s a demographic that’s wildly diverse, and yet inequalities along the color line have been far less challenged than they’ve been in the United States. During America’s civil rights movement, Black activists in Brazil were jailed by the country’s military regime. But a new constitution in 1988 and targeted activism leading to 10 years of affirmative action in universities have spurred a group of Black Brazilians to agitate for greater change, dubbing themselves “Generation Tombamento” — a slang term taken from a local rap queen that means pushing for progress, and winning.
Ramos and Taís Araújo, his wife and co-star in Mountaintop and Mister Brau, are icons for this generation, drawing comparisons to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. But unlike the American megastars, they circulate easily among young Brazilian activists, Ramos’ deep voice and enormous grin known to many on university campuses in Rio, where the couple lives. The son of a maid and a chemical plant worker from the northeastern state of Bahia, Ramos joined a theater troupe as a teenager to overcome a debilitating shyness. Soon he’d found a mentor in José Carlos Arandiba, a prominent choreographer who tells OZY he encouraged the youth’s desire to “own his own destiny.” Steady theater work led to what would be Ramos’ breakout role as a drag queen in the 2002 film Madame Satã.
Until recently, successful artists of color were pushed by social norms to “act white.”
Globo, the network where Ramos starred in several soaps prior to Mister Brau, reportedly reaches nearly half of Brazil’s homes, and its executives speak proudly of its ability to influence attitudes on social issues. A recent event for LGBTQ pride day in Rio included a Globo-produced film about violence against trans Brazilians, as well as two panels, one on Black feminism and the other, moderated by Ramos, on changing perspectives on masculinity.
But panelist Tatiana Nascimento questions whether the fanfare is an indicator of genuine progress: “This event does not change that the Globo soap operas that my family watches every night send overwhelming messages that only white, heteronormative stories matter.” From 1994 to 2014, a study found only 4 percent of the network’s soap operas featured Black women in starring roles in a country that is 54 percent Black.
To tackle that kind of disparity, Ramos tells OZY he uses public events and internal conversations at Globo to argue that “narratives as diverse as Brazil itself attract wider audiences.” He believes the network’s current leadership is in favor of making the shift, pointing to Mister Brau, a show it’s heralded, about a wealthy Black couple grappling with racism, sexism and artistic success. Since its 2015 debut, it has continually topped viewership charts, reaching on average more than 3 million Brazilian homes.
In My Skin is also pushing the conversation forward. Literary critic Fred Coelho tells OZY that “the significance the editorial world is giving this launch” is evident in the fact that its first-time author was invited to appear at Brazil’s largest and most prestigious literary festival in Paraty. What’s more, according to Lilia Schwarcz, a historian and co-founder of the book’s publisher, Companhia das Letras, it’s the first memoir by a highly successful Black media figure in Brazil. Until recently, Schwarcz tells OZY, successful artists of color were pushed by social norms to “act white” — and not, as Ramos does, to weigh in on topics ranging from young Black YouTubers who inspire him to mass incarceration to interracial dating.
“Ramos’ book is about our Brazilian question,” says Schwarcz: “the need to consider slavery’s legacy in any serious conversation about forward progress.” Progress, in his mind, that depends on more than the capacity of art to solve societal problems. “We have seen lots of diagnosis, but little cure,” he writes.
To conceive of a cure, says Ramos, calls on not just artists but also families, companies, activists and politicians to play a role. It’s a complex process with no guarantee of success, he admits, but what’s telling is the response from readers. Ramos says he’s been surprised by white CEOs as well as Black youth who’ve sent in selfies with his book’s cover. And three weeks after its launch, the book became a national best-seller.