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Brazil: An Inconvenient History

Year: 2000, 50 mins
Code: SEV-Brazil

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As Brazil prepares to celebrate its 500th anniversary in the year 2000, it will display to the rest of the world its most brilliant features - heady carnivals, samba, football and a bewildering ethnic diversity. But behind this glittering facade, lies a much more disturbing story - the history of the biggest slave population ever. Whereas 4% of all slaves went to the USA, 40% went to Brazil. This programme looks at those 4 million people on whose backs Brazil was built and without whom none of its present day culture would have been possible.

Using contemporary accounts, the film reconstructs the world as seen by slaves in Brazil over 300 years. Living and working in squalid conditions on plantations or in cities teeming with disease, most Africans survived only seven years in the New World. The harsh punishments meted out by their white masters took their toll too, and those that could, fled. But many found a way through the daily oppression by forging a new culture fusing the African and European, a culture which permeates the whole of Brazilian society to this day.

"It's an eye-opener" - The Independent

"In 2002, President George W. Bush asked former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso: "Do you have blacks, too?" He and America might have been spared that particular humiliation had Bush viewed Brazil: An Inconvenient History before meeting with Cardoso.

The documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky, originally aired on the BBC Timewatch series in 2000. It is a short, vigorous account of the Portuguese slave trade that helped create the cultural and economic stratification of society that exists in modern-day Brazil. It explains why there is such a broad range of blacks, browns, and whites - and why so much of the country's wealth is in the pockets of so few, mostly pale-skinned, Brazilians.The answers lie in the history of sugar and slavery that extends back into the mid-1500s.

Sugar was hard to come by in the sixteenth century - and literally worth its weight in gold. The narrator states, "In 1598, a traveler in England noted how Queen Elizabeth's teeth were black from too much sugar. The cause of a Queen's poor dentistry was the source of Portugal's new wealth. Huge quantities of processed sugar were shipped to ports like Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Venice. Sugar was Brazilian gold." However, sugar was only misery and death for the blacks who were kidnapped from their African homeland by the hundreds of thousands and shipped to Brazil to work the plantations - a practice that continued well into the nineteenth century (Brazil was the last country to officially abolish slavery.) Life expectancy for new arrivals was six or seven years, and slaves born in Brazil only lived on average into their early twenties. A planter from the 1800s was asked if the mistreatment and consequent early death of his slaves was not economically harmful.The film's narrator says he answered that, "On the contrary, it brought him no personal injury at all, since when he purchased a slave it was for the purpose of using him for only a single year, after which very few could survive, but nonetheless made them work in such a way that he not only recovered his original purchase price, but made a considerable profit."

Brazil: An Inconvenient History is peppered with several truly horrific stories similar to and much worse than the one above - murders, castrations, and brutal whippings and beatings - but most of the film is a trenchant, condensed history that is informative and fascinating. It does not approach its subject with dry, academic verbosity, nor does it oversimplify. Overall, it's a nicely balanced historical documentary.

The non-anamorphic DVD presentation is in the somewhat unusual aspect ratio of 14:9 (formerly used by the BBC) and results in a "floating" image that is both pillar and letterboxed. The image is rather soft and displays some combing on horizontal pan shots.
Color is about average for a twelve-year-old TV video. The 2.0 Dolby audio is crisp and clear with easily understood dialogue and excellent vocal translations of the non-English speakers. There are no extras, only trailers for a pair of BBC documentaries, also directed by Grabsky.

The film is a bit too verbally graphic for younger viewers, but the DVD should be suitable for high school or college classroom viewing and is just the correct length to show in one class period. I also recommend it to casual viewers for its interesting and cogent short history of the slave trade in nineteenth-century Brazil."
- Judge Russell Engebretson, DVD Verdict

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