By Zeba Blay | Shadow and Act December 16, 2013 at 4:12PM
This year’s New York ADIFF featured an impressive roster of powerful, though little-seen films, many of them exploring the complexities of the African identity throughout the diaspora. But it was the 2004 Brazilian drama Daughters of the Wind that really struck me - a film that finds its focus at the intersection of race, class, and gender in modern-day Brazil. There has of course been the long running narrative of swept-under-the-rug racism in Brazil, a society that, even with the second largest black population in the world, has often refused in the past to acknowledge that it actually has a race problem.
You see that race problem manifest itself in many ways - in the lives of poor blacks vs. wealthy whites, an institutionalized lack of opportunities and access for those Brazilians who are non-white. You see it, too, in the media, in the constant representation of Brazilians in movies and soap operas with fair skin, light eyes, and silky hair. Here, director Joel Zito Araújo tackles and responds to that narrow field of representation, expanding on 2000 documentary Denying Brazil (about the marginalization of Brazilian black actors in the soap opera world) with the fictional story featuring an all-black cast about two sisters and their daughters.
We follow the story of four black woman, beginning with estranged sisters Cida (Tais Araujo) and Ju (Thalma de Frietas), both inching towards their twilight years without having spoken to each other in decades. Having grown up in the Brazilian countryside under the oppressive rule of their father, Joe (Milton Goncalves), the two have never been able to reconcile events from the past, when Cida fled home for the big city of Rio to become a soap opera actress, while Ju stayed in their rural village to live out the life of a homemaker.
Through the sisters we meet their 30-something year old daughters: Selma (Maria Ceiça), Cida’s resentful and emotionally distant only child who is having an affair with a white married man, and Dora (Danielle Omellas), who breaks her mother Ju’s heart when she leaves the village to live with her aunt in Rio to also pursue an acting career.
The movie often takes on the soap operatic tenor of the characters we see in Cida and Dora’s telenovelas, and with its bright colors, its complex female leads, and purposeful moments of melodrama juxtaposed darker themes, there are moments in Daughters of the Wind very much reminiscent of 80s and 90s Almodóvar. But it’s distinct in its subject matter, especially when it comes to race. There’s a scene when the dark-complexioned Dora auditions for a role in Black Orpheus only to be told: “You’re good, but we’re looking for more of a peasant girl. You look like a Black American actress.” Or another scene, where Cida reminisces on her acting career, telling Dora “I would put everything, everything into my performance...then I realized the camera was only focusing on the pretty white actress, not the maid.”
There is the tension of Vida’s wealth, juxtaposed with Ju’s much less extravagant lifestyle. There’s also Selma’s struggle to own her sexuality while trying to reconcile the sense of exotification she feels in her clandestine affair. But the story goes far beyond race, honing in on what it means to be a mother, a sister, a woman. Though flawed (there’s an awkward and confusing use of flashbacks halfway through), it’s passion that makes the film effective. The four leads are not defined by their struggles, each portrait painted is as dynamic and multifaceted as Brazil itself. Daughters of the Wind is refreshing not only because it responds to Brazil’s sordid and complicated history of race and colorism but because it features bold, affecting performances by four talented Afro-Latina actresses.