What ‘City of God’ Teaches Us About Representation in Film, Ten Years Later

City of God BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of amazon.com

When the Brazilian film “City of God” was released in 2002, it shook the cinematic panorama, both for its extraordinary production and the painful and raw social denunciation it brought to theaters.

“City of God” follows the story of two Afro-Latinx characters living in the favela Cidade de Deus. Buscapé (Rocket, in the English version) is a young man determined to make an honest living. Zé Pequeno (Li’l Zé) becomes the leader of the biggest criminal gang in the favela and only cares about having power.

A production by and for the community?

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, “City of God” had an interesting shooting process. Most of the actors were residents of the favela and were invited to take an acting workshop. The result was the raw material for the film.

Ten years later, Cavi Borges and Luciano Vidigal made a documentary in which they investigated what had become of the lives of the actors of “City of God.”

The documentary, available on Netflix, is not a work of art as the original film. Still, it constitutes a valuable exercise that, in my opinion, should be made mandatory when we witness any cultural event qualified as a significant advance for society.

This would prevent us from falling into what Dr. Anna Merritt calls “moral self-licensing,” that is when we do something “good” as individuals or collectively and then feel liberated to act immorally.

The documentary “City of God – Ten Years Later” discovered that some of the actors in the film built successful careers, while others are still trying to make their way in the acting industry in a racist industry with no market for Afro-Latinx actors.

However, most of the actors did not make it. Some went back to crime; others disappeared altogether, and those who have had the hardest time also feel let down by how little they were paid after participating in a film that grossed more than $30 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo figures.

It would seem then that, although “City of God” put the favela on the map, the race and social class barriers that inspired it remained unchanged.

Another consequence of lack of representation

One of the reasons most of the actors and actresses in “City of God” were unable to continue their artistic careers was the lack of representation behind the scenes.

For the film industry to expand and diversify, it is imperative that creatives of color also participate in the production process, as professors Michelle Sales and Bruno Muniz point out in their article Image and Racism. They highlight findings from a study conducted by ANCINE, the Brazilian federal agency charged with fostering and regulating the film industry. In the 2016 study, ANCINE found that film production is primarily handled by white men, who directed 75% of the films that year. Meanwhile, not a single black woman wrote or directed a feature film in 2016.

The solution lies in supporting independent filmmaking

When asked what we can do to support these artists, the solution seems obvious: seek out, support, and disseminate series written, directed, or performed by black artists.

One of the series we recommend at BELatina is “September Mornings,” available on Prime Video and created by transgender actress and singer Liniker Barros. “September Mornings,” tells the story of Cassandra, a 30-year-old woman who has finally managed to find her place in the world as a trans woman, when she receives the news that she has a 10-year-old son.

In terms of film, our favorites are two: the classic “Orfeo Negro,” created by Brazilian athlete and actor Breno Mello, which, although directed by Marcel Camus, a white European, has an incredible cast and portrays Brazil’s black culture from a whole new perspective. And a more current one: “Good Manners,” starring Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano, available at Mubi.