Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black Orpheus

For Carnival fans this is the big night.  I suppose Barack Obama could have picked any number of films to highlight his relationship with his mother, but he chose Black Orpheus, a movie that tells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice during the time of the Carnival in Rio.

The movie was a little before Obama's time, but it was in the mid 70s that he recalled his mother taking him to a showing in New York.  He treated the film as a window on his mother's soul, helping him to explain his mother interest in black men and why she chose to marry his Kenyan father.  I suppose we all need explanations especially when our parents are not always forthcoming.

Obama has referred to this film several times, including his visit to Brazil in 2011.  I think Pan-American leaders were hoping for more out of Obama these past five years.  There were a lot of expectations raised when he attended the Organization of American States (OAS) conference back in 2009, and he never really lived up to them.  The US relationship with its fellow American states is cordial but not overly so.  No sooner does it appear that Obama makes an in-road into a hot spot like Cuba or Venezuela than it becomes quickly closed off.  We still seem to view Latin America in the same terms we saw it back in 1959 when this film first came out, and ironically when Fidel Castro first came to power.

Still from "I Am Cuba"
A few years later another classic film came out, Soy Cuba, a remarkable evocation on the Cuban independence movement, as told by Mikhail Kalatozov.  It begins with Havana high life in the days before the revolution and then shifts to the sugar plantations to show the oppressive conditions most Cubans lived under during the Batista regime.  It is pure Soviet propaganda like the Eisenstein films of old, but is absolutely mesmerizing to watch.  It too is a love story not that far apart from Black Orpheus, which probably had an influence on Kalatosov.

It seems Latin America is still a mystery to many of us.  We tend to view it in exotic terms, as Obama did in his reveries of that visit by his mother and half sister in New York.  I suppose that's because most US citizens visit the other America only for vacations, usually hedonistic ones.

We continue to see Latin America as a threat to our peace and security, and it doesn't help when Russia stirs the pot by doing naval maneuvers off the cost of Venezuela.  Surprisingly, Obama and Bush before him have said very little about Russia's military assistance to Venezuela and Bolivia.  There's even talk of building naval bases in Latin America.  In light of Russia's incursion into Ukraine, I imagine we will see the US take a stronger stance.

Marpessa Dawn with Marcel Camus
But, Latin America is not some black void on which to project our fantasies as Marcel Camus did, and especially not our nightmares as we did during those tense 13 days in October, when the world's attention focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Brazil is one of the 20 most powerful countries in the world, and strong trade relationships are coveted by both the United States and Russia.  But, it seems the indelible images of Black Orpheus live on.

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