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Black Male Sexuality on Screen in Brazilian Erotic Drama 'Lower City' Starring Lazaro Ramos

Shadow and Act By Vanessa Martinez | Shadow and Act June 4, 2014 at 1:54PM

A film that challenges conventions with regards to depicting black men as fully fleshed sexual beings in American cinema
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Lazaro Ramos and Alice Braga in a still from 'Lower City'
Lazaro Ramos and Alice Braga in a still from 'Lower City'

Thinking about frequent conversations on this blog over the years about black men and sexuality – and lack thereof – on film and TV screens, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this topic; this time with a non-American film - Sergio Machado’s 2005 Brazilian film noir "Lower City" ("Cidade Baixa").


Emotions and passions run high in Machado’s erotic drama. One can compare "Lower City" to the acclaimed film "City of God" – at least, culturally (impassioned, complex characters of the lower working class), and its uncompromising spirit. Some Brazilians may consider this film as part of the country’s “slumsploitation” boom after the success of God, although Lower City’s violence is nowhere near God’s. I also must add that the former is not as well crafted and narratively cohesive as the latter. 

"Lower City's" premise is very similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2001 Mexican drama "Y Tu Mama Tambien": two young men, Deco – played by Lazaro Ramos ("Madame Sata," "The Man Who Copied"), who is considered Brazil’s Denzel Washington (we’ll get into that later) – and Naldinho (Wagner Moura), share the “affections” of a young woman; the friendship bond of Deco and Naldinho eventually corrodes as they confront jealousy, and the two “brothers” (from other mothers and fathers, obviously) relentlessly compete against each other. And, who is the object of their affections? Karinna, a young stripper and prostitute played by Alice Braga, who is the niece of actress Sonia Braga. 

Deco and Naldinho meet Karinna after a cock-fight. She asks the two young men for ride into town on their boat, which they both share. She supplements her lack of cash for the ride with sexual services. Soon after, the two men start “sharing” Karinna, and the trio also begin an unlikely friendship, which deepens when Karinna decides to stay with Deco to care for Naldinho after he is stabbed in a bar fight. 

Despite the film’s flaws, "Lower City" is worth watching for its visceral performances, especially Ramos' Deco. He becomes more vulnerable emotionally as the film progresses, when the two friends begin to fall for Karinna. Ramos performance is nuanced and delivers a complex range of emotions. Deco attempts to remain in control of his feelings; he wouldn’t dare to think this young prostitute could come between his friendship with Naldinho. But subtly, and steadily, Deco’s emotions and anger begin to unravel as his infatuation and sexual obsession for Karina intensify, and she “works” her way around both men. 

Thanks for the aplomb performances by all three leads, "Lower City," among other things, is a perceptive, intuitive film; it’s also unapologetic and unrestrained in its sexual “frivolity.” "City" is not only provocative, but it is even tantalizing, and a guilty pleasure; it may also appear as a pure campy fantasy in some scenes, which seem adapted from an erotic novel, but set in the inner city slums of Salvador, Brazil. 

Lower City poster

While watching the film, I kept marveling at Ramos arresting screen presence; he’s a fantastic actor, and, I pondered upon the fact that it is seldom to see black men as fully fleshed sexual beings, and no-holds bar depictions of such, at that. We often talk about the film industry’s strategic aversion – and/or aversion in general – to black men in rather explicit sexual scenes and situations. A lot has to do with the racist and segregationist history–which dehumanized blacks, deemed them as sexually violent, etc. - of the U.S. of A. But Americans are more self-conscious and conservative about sex in general it seems, at least on-screen; and that perhaps, is due to our country’s puritanical historical roots. 

Upon further research of Ramos, I came across this piece Tambay posted about the Brazilian superstar and actor in the piece “Meet Brazil’s Denzel Washington..” which told you about Ramos becoming the FIRST black lead in a Brazilian novela. By the way, Ramos is married to the beautiful Tais Araujo, who is the country's Halle Berry. And all of this is funny because, hell, Denzel Washington rarely takes his shirt of in films and/or is naked when he is having sex in film, if that even happens, which is, again, RARE.

Brazil is a different culture – not a post-racial one whatsoever - if the fact that Ramos being the-first-EVER-black lead in a telenovela is any indication, but, culturally is definitely less sexually inhibited, at least on-screen. And, "Lower City" practically oozes sex.

It is also interesting to note the racial dynamics in the film. Deco and Naldinho, whose bond seems to transcend their racial differences, are placed at odds with each other, and we’re not sure if Karinna prefers one over the other. However, there are more sexually charged scenes between Karinna and Ramos’ Deco. In the end, one gets the feeling that she is picking Naldhino over him, even after it becomes somewhat clear that she does have a preference for the black protagonist, at least sexually. 

There’s a symbolism in one of the beginning sequences of the film, when the two friends are betting on the white-feathered cock to beat the black-feathered cock in the birds’ bloody fight (they lose the bet), which permeates throughout the film, and becomes a more of a metaphorical comparison towards the end of the film’s bloody climax. 

"No woman will come between us," Naldinho tells Deco, to which Deco agrees: "All the women in the world couldn't come between us."



This article is related to: Lázaro Ramos


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