written by guest contributor Renee; originally published at Womanist Musings
So yesterday, the family and I decided to watch the movie Rio. Rio is the story of a blue macaw from Minnesota, who travels to Rio with his owner, when it is discovered that he is the last male of his kind. It becomes apparent that though Blue belongs in the jungle, his contact with humans (read: domestication), has made him uncomfortable with his own kind and he cannot fly.
Though the story itself was extremely cute and voiced by several actors of colour, the characters themselves sent a very different message. The actors include Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, George Lopez, Rodrigo Santoro, Will i Am, Jamie Foxx, Bernardo de Paula, Wanda Sykes, Gracinha Leporace and it was directed by Carlos Saldanha. It seems that there were people of colour heavily involved in this movie, and yet most of the characters on screen were White. The issue here is that POC largely played animals, thus making it difficult to separate them from the White characters. As an adult, I was readily able to recognize their voices, but the same task would be extremely difficult to a child. The only highly visible multi-racial bodies were the villains. People of colour do appear sporadically in the background of the film, but nowhere near matching the actual percentage of the population that they make up in Brazil, thus giving the impression that Brazil is a largely White country.
If that were not enough, Fernando, a young boy in cahoots with the birdnappers, explains that he was only involved in the plot because he is poor. The poverty that he lives in, is never put into context of the stigmatized identity that Blackness is in Brazil. According to the BBC, “no other country outside Africa has such a large black population, about half the total of 160 million, yet blacks are almost totally absent from positions of power – from all levels of government, from congress, senate, the judiciary, the higher ranks of the civil service and the armed forces”. The article goes on to say:
In 1946 a Unesco study revealed that while most Brazilians approved of racial tolerance, in practice racial discrimination was widespread.
Fifty years later in 1999, a report by the Minority Rights Group International showed that discrimination had continued: black and mixed race Brazilians still have higher infant mortality rates, fewer years of schooling, higher rates of unemployment, and earn less for the same work.
Black men are more likely to be shot or arrested as crime suspects, and when found guilty, get longer sentences.
Like most cartoons, Rio ends on a happy note. Fernando is saved from a potential life of crime by Whites. Blue’s owner sets up an endangered bird rescue, and he is seen living happily with them. Once again, Whiteness saves the day and rescues an impoverished young person of colour. We have seen the message repeatedly in cinema for e.g. the hard working White teacher who goes to a inner city school and identifies with the kids, though she has nothing in common with them, and is magically able to inspire them to succeed in school. Most recently, Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award playing White savior in The Blind Side. The message is that Blackness can only be redeemed by an infusion of Whiteness. People of colour are never seen to be working together to improve their living conditions, let alone raising their own children, and this constructs them as existing without agency.
This message occurred within the context of a cartoon aimed at children. There are those that will claim that because it was a cartoon, that it does not merit investigation; however, it is my belief that this is precisely why we need to pay attention to the messages encoded in the film. Despite the myth that we are post racial and now exist in a colourblind society, the only people who actually do are children, that is until we teach them that racial hierarchy is a necessary function of society. A parent need not actively teach White children that they are privileged for the message to be fully understood. It happens in what seems to be the most insignificant ways: cartoons in which they are overrepresented and uplifted, books in which they are the central characters and even aisle upon aisle of White baby dolls in toy departments. This teaches White children that their race is prized, while teaching Back children that they are at best, insignificant without the patronage of a White sponsor. This is why so many years after the original test, Black children continue to desire the White dolls and associate positive characteristics with Whiteness and negative characteristics with Blackness.
As I watched this movie with my children, the significance of the characters racial background did not go unnoticed by me. The unhusband and I once again took the time to point out racism in the media and why it is important to watch critically. Even as we did this, I could not help but wonder how many White parents have watched this film with their kids and did not bother to point the racial inequity and how this upholds Whiteness. They have either been to indoctrinated by White Supremacy to comprehend what they are watching, or they simply do not care, because they believe that their children are not being impacted negatively by such characterization. The truth is, though racism is a terrible thing for people of colour to live with, it damages Whites in various ways, and this is particularly true, if one is both White and marginalized by another stigmatization. The overvaluation of Whiteness stalls cooperation with people of colour, thereby limiting possibilities to destabilize oppression.
Rio was a fun movie to watch. It was colourful and extremely vivid, however the near erasure of the Afro-Brazilian population was really quite telling. Casting African-Americans as animals instead of humans, does not count for inclusion cookies. It is further problematic when we consider that African-Americans have historically been compared to animals as way to challenge their humanity and reduce them. As long as humans are understood to be White, we cannot claim to be equal. Don’t dismiss the message that movies like Rio sends to children, because it is in innocuous movies like Rio, that we continue to racialize the world and promote White supremacy.