Black History Month: Reclaiming Black Orpheus

Before we begin, here is a soundtrack for today’s post: Nigerian singer-songwriter Keziah Jones’ 2003 album “Black Orpheus” (Spotify Link; YouTube Link). I think that the best song on this album is the first: Afrosurrealismfortheladies (all one word with no spaces — a wonderful mouthful). 

I would also like to provide a quick summary of Orpheus’ story before I constantly reference it below. In it, Orpheus, an incredible musician, falls deeply in love with the mortal Eurydice. Filled with grief after Eurydice dies from a snake bite, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to bring her back to life, successfully moving the heart of the Underworld’s god (Hades) with his music. To get her back, Orpheus must follow one rule: do not look back at Eurydice until you have left the Underworld. Just before the journey’s end, Orpheus suspiciously glances back only to see that the Hades had kept up his promise. He can do nothing but watch his beloved as she is dragged away from him, never to see her again. 

Today’s entry for SPEAC’s Black History Month blog post series is a showcase of interpretations, primarily focusing on those of the famous 1959 film Orfeu Negro (“Black Orpheus”) made by the 20th century French film director Marcel Camus. Camus’ film is a very loose adaptation of the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes’ 1956 play Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception”). It was an important foundation for Black interpretations of classical myths despite the white director’s tone-deaf, whimsical portrayal of the Black Brazilian experience. In Vicky Gan’s 2014 Smithsonian article, Black Orpheus: How a French Film Introduced the World to Brazil, she describes the film as “… a literal coming-out party for Brazil in the European-American imagination”.

Both Camus and Moraes’ stories are set among the crowded streets of Rio’s vibrant Carnival, using the overwhelming quantity of colorfully-dressed partiers as visual representations of Orpheus’ dizzying journey through the Underworld. Camus’ approach, however, completely ignores the 1950s Brazilian trend of using black and white film to reveal the gritty truths of everyday life in the style known as Cinema Novo. One of the leaders of the Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha, “… described the movement as an ‘aesthetics of hunger’ that would ‘make the public aware of its own misery’ and cast a critical eye on Brazil’s social ills” (Gan). Camus stomps on top of this, presenting to an international audience the idyllic fantasy of a foreigner serenaded by a smooth, catchy, and commercializable Bossa nova soundtrack (written by the brilliant Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá).

In his novel Dreams From My Father, President Barack Obama takes us through his feelings of discomfort when attending a showing of Orfeu Negro beside his entranced mother:

“I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different” (Obama 51). 

This photograph is from the official page of the Black Orpheus Musical

The topic of Black Orpheus is particularly timely as we wait for Colombian-born, Canadian-raised Sergio Trujillo’s soon-to-come Broadway adaptation of the same name. It will be performed at some yet-to-be-named time in 2023. From the promotional images, this play seems to be experimenting more with an interpretation of the Ancient Greek use of masks in tragedy than Camus’ Orfeu Negro did. Importantly, rather than claim Camus as a source of inspiration for a show directed towards an American audience (for whom Camus is assuredly more well-known than Moraes), the play emphasizes Brazilian representation by listing Vinicius de Moraes’ play as the primary source material without mention of Camus.

Orfeu Negro also inspired the chapter “Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheus” in Desiree C. Bailey’s incredible 2021 poetry collection What Noise Against the Cane (pages 54-56). Here is a link to her reading the poem aloud (the poem introduction begins at 22:38). In her live reading, Bailey calls the poem her way of processing her feelings after watching Camus’ film. She says, “[w]hen I encountered [Black Orpheus], I was like wow, these beautiful colors — and there’s so much about these people that I recognize in myself, in my people. But there was a lot that made me uncomfortable about the film” (Bailey). Her discomfort, like President Obama’s, comes from how cloyingly sweet the film is. Filled with sarcasm, Bailey’s “Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheus” thrusts a memorable, visceral description of her film-viewing experience before us: 

“I too from masquerade land. Asphalt sputtering, chomping on plastic beads and feathers, costumes re-singing histories of the flesh. My island a speck, a globe of spit slipping past the eye of the world. So I watch Orfeu Negro greedy for a glimpse of myself, a skip trick of light splayed out on the screen. My greed, my open mouth cares not for taste. I am almost ashamed. I want to be looked upon as the world looks upon Eurydice. Delicate, the way her pistil sways in the breeze” (Bailey 55). 

For more information about Black reinterpretations of classical myths, I would look to Patrice D. Rankine’s 2013 book Aristotle and Black Drama: A Theater of Civil Disobedience. It is a somewhat dense (but very interesting) analysis of some of the many Black playwrights who challenged the lack of Blackness in most interpretations of classical texts, presenting a whitewashed version void of even the slightest amount of diversity. Just a brief skim of the book will introduce you to the names of fundamental Black playwrights, whose plays you can watch online. Justine McConnell’s Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora since 1939 is another useful introduction to Black interpretations of the classics, with hers focusing on post-colonial receptions of Homer’s OdysseyIf you are more interested in visual arts, the Eos Africana panel showcased a workshop on “Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts” in 2020 (I recommend keeping up with their posts in general to follow new, modern Africana interpretations of the classics).

I also really recommend checking out Vanessa Stovall. Her appearance on Liv Albert’s podcast “Let’s Talk About Myths” in which they discuss a variety of myths is very approachable. Above all else, Stovall’s Medium blog is a very engaging resource for getting a read on modern classical receptions. She begins her article “Antigone Unbound | Part I: Horror & Attic Black-Figures” with a still from one of Black Orpheus‘ many scenes of dancing (shown below). Though she does not mention Orpheus again, the use of this scene of revelry before her exploration of the possession of other classical characters (Antigone and Creon, Agave and Pentheus, and more) ties Black Orpheus’ Carnival neatly back to antiquity.

Finally, Hardy Fredricksmeyer (another reader of ancient texts) makes the same connection between Bacchic possession and the Carnival in his paper Black Orpheus, Myth and Ritual: A Morphological Reading:

“Perhaps in appreciation of some of the relation between ancient celebrations of the god and its own modern celebration, Louisiana calls the Sunday before Fat Tuesday ‘Bacchus Sunday,’ and one of the most important troupes and floats is called ‘Bacchus.'” (Fredericksmeyer 159).

Enjoy that grape-adorned float this Mardis Gras on March 1st! (The float is linked here).