Tent of Miracles
Myth of racial democracy

by Joan R. Dassin

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 20-22
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

TENT OF MIRACLES, says its director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, is a clear direct film that confronts a human question — that of racial discrimination — with great frankness and humor.

Completed in December 1975 and first shown in Brazil in October 1977, TENT OF MIRACLES, based on Jorge Amada's novel, is indeed a richly-peopled, plain-speaking, and even light-hearted picture about the persecution and survival of black African culture in Brazil. With this focus, Nelson Pereira — the patriarch of nationally-minded filmmakers in Brazil for nearly 25 years — has challenged the most widely-held false belief in his society: the myth that Brazil is a racial democracy.

That Nelson Pereira has dared to make such a film speaks well of his efforts to create a popular cinema based on key national issues. That the film is not as hard-hitting as its Brazilian critics — both white and black [1] — would have liked attests to the difficulty of speaking honestly on a taboo question. True, no amount of forthrightness can compensate for the fact that the film was made by a white outsider looking in. So far few black filmmakers in Brazil have told their own story. Still, TENT OF MIRACLES merits close attention, both for what it says and for what it fails to say clearly.

The film is set in two alternating time frames: the beginning of the century and the present. Shot on location in Bahia states capital city of Salvador, Brazil's northeastern center of African culture, the film uses exterior sets and careful costuming to re-create an authentic turn-of-the-century ambience.

In this historical time frame, the central plot unfolds. It is the story of the mulato Pedro Arcanjo, a philosopher-scientist-high-priest who rocks white Bahian high society with his theories on race and religion. In the white world, Arcanjo is a lowly functionary at Bahia's prestigious Faculty of Medicine, at the time the principal center of social studies in Brazil. Among his own people, he is called Ojuabá, or the Eyes of Xangô, the most powerful god in the African panoply of saints. Folk dancer, guitar player, lover of good rum and women of all races, and progenitor of many children, Arcanjo is devoted above all to his own community. His self-assumed task is to defend their African heritage against the racial theories of white "science," based on the false premise of African "genetic inferiority."

Pedro Arcanjo is a synthetic personage modeled on several real-life Afro-Brazilians, self-taught peoples' intellectuals who challenged white "superiority" in the early years of the century. Arcanjo was possibly based on the anti-illiteracy crusader Major Cosme da Faria, who printed thousands of "ABC" pamphlets and distributed them to the poor. Manoel Quirino, famous among Bahia experts for providing "the first vision of a black about other blacks," is another probable model.

In the film, Arcanjo contests prejudice espoused as "science" by the pompous Professor Nilo Argolo de Araújo, also a composite of several early 20th century historical figures. Unlike Pedro Arcanjo's rather obscure real-life counterparts — whose obscurity is thoroughly satirized in the film by the "rediscovery" of the long-forgotten Arcanjo — Argolo's forebears were well-known Brazilian intellectuals. The character's advocacy of "whitening," for example, echoes the position of literary critic Sílvio Romero, who proclaimed: "…the future victory of the life struggle will belong to the whites." Argolo also shares the sentiments of scientist-politician Oliveira Viana, known as "the greatest mystic of Aryanism in Brazil." Finally, Argolo's defense of white purity and proposed legislation to prevent interracial marriage are in perfect accord with the views of Bahian doctor Nina Rodrigues, a founding father of Afro-Brazilian studies, who nonetheless declared: "The black race in Brazil will always stand at the base of our inferiority as a people." [2]

The confrontation over race between Pedro Arcanjo and Prof. Argolo is thus grounded in Brazilian history. Our sympathies are unquestionably with the former as he scales and descends the famous steep streets of Salvador, gathering information about his people, their past, and their history. At last Arcanjo's painstakingly-written book is printed by typesetter Lídio Corró in the Tent of Miracles, a meeting-place frequented by artists, craftsmen, devotees of African religion and dance, and all other blacks, mulatos, and even whites ostracized by the towns ruling elites. When the book comes to Argolo's attention, Pedro Arcanjo is fired from the Faculty of Medicine, but he never abandons his quest to prove the cultural, social and political dynamism of black African culture in Brazil.

Several turning points mark his mature and aging days: the marriage of his college-educated son, Tadeu Canhoto, to an upper-class white woman over the vehement protests of her supposedly unprejudiced father, and the repeated police attacks on the community's candomblé terreiro or African religious temple. These events are set against the backdrop of Arcanjo's ever optimistic political activity and his growing mistrust of certain white supporters (represented in the film by a drunken "Marxist").

But what, precisely, is Pedro Arcanjo's philosophy of race? He writes tracts praising the aesthetic qualities of black music, art and dance, evidence that African culture has survived in Bahia, despite nearly 400 years of slavery and forced labor. He discredits "scientific" theories of white superiority by exposing the black ancestry of the Bahian ruling class.

Arcanjo refutes the spurious division between men of religion and men of science. He himself is a leader of both. In the spiritual realm, he is a high priest of candomblé, the syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion inherited from Yoruba slaves brought by the Portuguese to colonial Brazil. In the scientific world, Arcanjo is a meticulous researcher who collects empirical evidence to prove the complexity and resilience of black culture as a form of resistance to white domination.

In Pedro Arcanjo, Nelson Pereira has created an authentic Afro-Brazilian hero. Unlike most blacks and mulatos portrayed in Brazilian literature, theater, and film, Arcanjo is treated with neither condescension nor sensationalism. His companions in the Tent of Miracles are not seen as "folkloric" or wildly sensual. Rather they enjoy their cuisine, dance and religious rites with evident gusto and naturalness.

Not only the hero Arcanjo, but the entire Afro-Brazilian community is thus treated with sincerity and respect by Nelson Pereira. Nowhere is this more evident than in the presentation of the candomblé, the African religion at the heart of community life. The film makes it clear that the candomblé is not a mere psycho-religious release, but a vital source of cultural continuity, community solidarity, and political organization. Arcanjo sums up the value of the candomblé. when he asserts that the orixás, or candomblé gods, are the "goods" of the people. This established, the dramatically portrayed police prosecution of the candomblé temple is seen for what it is: an intentionally malicious act of cultural and racial repression.

Like the debate on race, Nelson Pereira's view of the candomblé is also true to Brazilian history. Ever since the first slaves arrived in Brazil, around 1530, it was their religion that most actively resisted the annihilating force of white, Western, Christian culture. Moreover, candomblé was the "cradle of Afro-Brazilian art," as the prominent black dramatist and artist Abdias do Nascimento has contended in his pioneering book, "Racial Democracy" in Brazil: Myth or Reality?

Precisely this cultural dynamism has provoked repression from civil and Catholic authorities since colonial times. In this century, Afro-Brazilian religions have been the only cultic entities in Brazil required to register their temples with the police. Three years ago, Bahia, with its 70-80% Afro-Brazilian population, became the first and only state to suspend this compulsory registration.

This official hostility toward candomblé is a prominent theme in anonymous black popular poetry. Further evidence of persecution is the fact that one of the most extensive collections of candomblé cult objects is housed in Rio de Janeiro's Police Museum! For candomblé to survive, it even became necessary to create a new office in the religious hierarchy. The ogan, or honorary patron, was almost invariably an influential white who protected the temple and its faithful from outside attacks. This history of repression has a clear lesson: the rule of force endured by white Brazilian society since the military seized power fifteen years ago has always been the norm for black Brazilians.

Fidelity to Brazilian history thus accounts for the air of authenticity surrounding African culture in the film. It is also a result of Nelson Pereira's skillful direction of a cast which included not only professional actors, but famous local figures and many non-actors as well. As in all of his films, these non-professionals "mark the presence of the people." Thus the Bahians themselves lend credence to Nelson Pereira's objective of "taking up a dialogue with the people" in an effort to create a popular and nationally responsible cinema.

In large measure, that objective depends on reclaiming the internal market from its present foreign control. Despite the controversy surrounding the state film enterprise (Embrafilme) and the continuing threat of political censorship, there is now more opportunity for national filmmakers than ever before. The earlier phases of Cinema Novo (led in part by Nelson himself) were too intellectualized to attract large audiences, who preferred the imported melodramas, second-rate comedies, and their locally produced counterparts that still dominate the Brazilian film market. Films like TENT OF MIRACLES and THE AMULET OF OGUM, Nelson Pereira's 1974 film about popular religion and gangsterism in Rio's impoverished industrial suburb of Caxias, are entertaining enough to contest that domination. Although AMULET was still thought of as an "intellectual" film and was therefore shown exclusively in middle and upper class urban centers, TENT OF MIRACLES did reach a wider audience, paving the way for public acceptance of serious Brazilian films.

If Nelson Pereira has taken up the challenge facing Brazilian filmmakers today, in TENT OF MIRACLES he also speaks to the current real-life drama of Brazilian blacks. The myth of racial democracy — an "official platitude" and an "ideological fiction" with roots deep in Brazilian intellectual history — is being denounced by courageous blacks. Now in public they question their lack of social, educational and professional opportunities in comparison with whites. For how much longer, these leaders ask, will successful samba dancers and millionaire soccer players be held up as the examples of "no discrimination here' to the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians who recognize only too well their second class status, their economic immobility, and their virtual exclusion from the decision-making process?

Nowhere is this exclusion more evident than in today's political movement for amnesty and re-democratization. In 1978, white society — largely middle class civilian groups and some workers — made significant headway against the military's arbitrary rule. Yet for Afro-Brazilians, who last year celebrated the 90th Anniversary of Abolition, participation in the most important political opening since the 1964 military coup was virtually foreclosed. Even if Brazilians regain guaranteed human rights and return to civilian government, their country will never be a true democracy without the full political participation of its black plurality-an estimated 35-50% of the population. [3] A single film can hardly transform a political system. But TENT OF MIRACLES is clearly a contribution to the black struggle because it contests the prevailing ideology that Brazil is already a racial democracy.

Unfortunately, that contribution is not unequivocal. One crucial confusion, evident in the plot, nearly jeopardizes the film's entire argument. Pedro Arcanjo, a mulato, fathers a child with the white Scandanavian woman Kirsi and another with Dorotea, presumably a mulata. The son of that latter union, Tadeu Canhoto, appears in the film to be lighter-skinned than his father. Tadeu in turn marries a white woman. When the newlywed couple leaves Bahia for Tadeu's promised high post in Rio de Janeiro, the connection between "whitening" and social success is established. Although the story stops at that point in time, the Brazilian viewer probably assumes that the next generation will not only pass for white, but will inherit social respectability and the chance for even greater ascension on the class scale.

This visual parable of "whitening" reveals the ideology implicit in the film's defense of racial crossbreeding. It also undercuts the energetic and upbeat presentation of an autonomous Afro-Brazilian culture. Unwittingly, perhaps, Nelson Pereira repeats the error of both his literary source (Bahian novelist Jorge Amado's 1969 novel, Tent of Miracles) and an earlier classic of Brazilian social history (Gilberto Freyre's The Masters and the Slaves of 1933). Both works uncritically advocate miscegenation.

Traditionally celebrated in Brazil as the means to ensure the tranquil mingling of the Portuguese, indigenous, and African races, miscegenation has long been glorified as the basis of the "cordial" national character. In contrast, the recognition that in siring the Brazilian race the Portuguese colonizers brutally imposed their will on black female slaves — after largely exterminating or subjugating recalcitrant Indian laborers — has spread very slowly. Indeed, historical truth has only recently made inroads into the national myth that Brazilians are the harmonious products of these three races, and live in an untroubled racial democracy.

As Brazilian culture critic Sergio Augusto has pointed out, miscegenation — both as a practice and as a widely espoused doctrine — has had two pernicious effects. Rather than fostering egalitarianism, miscegenation has promoted "whitening." Most seriously, it has denied to blacks (Indians being long out of the picture) the opportunity to develop their cultural identity as an independent group. Another Brazilian commentator, Muniz Sodré, seconds this view. Miscegenation's hidden value of "whitening," he asserts, is in fact a rejection of black culture in Brazil, a relegation of the Afro-Brazilian inheritance to a "source of sensationalism, a plethora of genital tricks, and an eternal supplier of recipes." [4]

Lamentably, TENT OF MIRACLES does not explore these negative consequences of miscegenation for black cultural survival in Brazil. On the contrary, the philosophy of "whitening" that lies behind supposedly egalitarian racial crossbreeding is visually and emotionally reinforced by the "success story" of Tadeu Canhoto. The U.S. viewer will probably miss the subtle racist implications of lauding miscegenation, because here the "mixed" population is considered black, and as such, is clearly subject to the will of the white majority. But in Brazil, the color line is not drawn so sharply. Indeed, the "democratic" mixing of races is the cornerstone of the dominant national ideology of race, ironically described by Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes as "the prejudice of having no prejudice."

Defenders of the doctrine of miscegenation and the myth of racial democracy come from all quarters in Brazil. Gilberto Freyre, who with Jorge Amado is the greatest popularizer of Brazil for North Americans, has proudly noted that Brazil is growing ever "browner." Freyre sees this trend as "proof" that the Brazilian "meta-race," supposedly formed in equal parts by blacks, Indians and whites, is at last emerging. [5] Even some Brazilian blacks have themselves proposed miscegenation so that "the negro will disappear and we will not have racial conflict like they do in the United States." As the young black Brazilian historian Beatriz Nascimento recently reflected, the 18th century dictum that "Brazil is a hell for blacks, a purgatory for whites, and a paradise for mulattos" is still the accepted national vision. The vision has only one catch: it is predicated on the "total disappearance" of those who live in "hell." [6]

The point, then, is that TENT OF MIRACLES muffs a chance to debunk this national illusion. Of course, the film does affirm Afro-Brazilian
culture, certainly to a much greater extent than other recent Brazilian films. In Carlos Diegues' XICA DA SILVA, for example, the black woman heroine is offensively portrayed as the ultimate sex object. Bruno Barreto's adaptation of Jorge Amado's novel Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (very popular in Brazil, DONA FLOR has also drawn good audiences in the U.S. and has even inspired a Broadway play) is at best a picturesque treatment of Bahia with no reference to the race question.

On balance, TENT OF MIRACLES, as one Brazilian critic quipped, is a "samba step forward." Sadly, it is not the wild leap at the doctrine of miscegenation — the heart of the "racial democracy" myth — so hoped for by Brazilian blacks. In alluding to Pedro Arcanjo's prodigious sexuality, moreover, the film may also unintentionally corroborate the stereotype of sexual promiscuity among Afro-Brazilians.

Several other flaws mar TENT OF MIRACLES. One might accuse Nelson Pereira of bad taste in literature. His statement in a Jornal do Brasil interview, that author Jorge Amado "registers not only popular customs but also the political, social, and cultural participation of the people" [7] in the novel Tent of Miracles is hardly seconded by literary critics. In fact renowned literature scholar Alfredo Bosi's representative opinion is that Amado always trades on "…stereotypes in place of the organic treatment of social conflicts; the picturesque instead of the aesthetic rendering of the social environment; folkloric types instead of true characters…" and above all, "…the image of Eros in the mind of the bourgeois intellectual." [8]

Sour grapes from an academician jealous of his country's best-selling novelist? Perhaps, but there are stereotypical and sexist elements in the film that are traceable to Amado's novel. These elements are more evident in the present-day time frame, of which little has been said so far. That story, briefly, concerns the machinations of the Nobel Prize-winning, Ph.D.-bearing "Brazilianist" Livingston, who comes to Bahia to visit the "great social scientist" Pedro Arcanjo's homeland. Livingston touches off a flurry of activity among the Bahians, who of course have never heard of their own great man. Unctuous local ad men and profit-minded promoters lose no time in discovering Pedro Arcanjo — or better still, his eminently marketable image. Their money-making schemes — including "Fresh Black" deodorant, a new "Pedro Arcanjo Shopping Center," and a First Graders' Essay Contest on "Why Pedro Arcanjo is a Great Man" — soon subvert plans for a Centennial Celebration. Program Chairwoman Dr. Edelweiss' original suggestion of a "Seminar on Brazilian Racial Democracy" thus goes by the boards, discarded as a "female whim."

Meanwhile, Ana Mercedes, the sensuous brownskinned girlfriend of journalist Fausto Pena, persuades Livingston to finance Pena's research into Arcanjo's real story. After a futile attempt to produce a stage play about Arcanjo, Pena retreats to Rio de Janeiro. Seated with his assistant in front of a moviola, and only occasionally interrupted by visits from his sexy girlfriend, Pena clips together Arcanjo's "true story," which the viewer is thus permitted to see.

While this minor second plot does allow Nelson Pereira to make the important point that cultural repression continues in Brazil in the form of commercial exploitation by advertisers and television producers, it also treats Ana Mercedes with a touch of sexism. (The white, middle class Dr. Edelweiss, in contrast, is shown to be a victim of sexism.) In the novel admittedly, as Nelson Pereira dos Santos has himself observed, Ana Mercedes is more or less a prostitute; in the film, she is a "free spirit." Yet her promiscuousness is exploited in both.

Livingston, used by Nelson Pereira to mock foreign scholars who study Brazil (a deservedly sensitive issue), is such a parody of a dense gringo that the whole discovery of Pedro Arcanjo  — and by extension, Arcanjo himself — are thrown into question. For North Americans who miss the "Brazilianist" joke, Livingston's stupidity is embarrassing. Finally, Nelson Pereira's jab at exploitative outsiders is really less serious than his criticism of intellectual dependency in Brazil. Just as in the film an ingenuous North American must remind Brazilians of their own forgotten philosopher, so in reality a local figure merits attention only after being recognized by foreigners. This point, no doubt lost on U.S. viewers, is necessary to make in Brazil. But it is compromised by Livingston's ridiculousness.

Thus Jorge Amado's penchant for stereotypes, his typical mistreatment of mulato men as "ideal" sex objects, and his inability to create fully realized characters resurface in the film. Consequently, some important criticisms of Brazilian society are weakened.

This is also true in regard to the stereotyped "Marxist materialist," who figures prominently in the historical time frame. Depicted as a drunk and a demagogue, the "Marxist" is Arcanjo's lone supporter among the Medical Faculty eminences, yet that character abandons the struggle at a key moment by hesitating to participate in an important march. The implication is that he is a coward as well. In a bar scene with Arcanjo, the "Marxist" gets sotted on innumerable beers, while Arcanjo gets more dignified and increasingly condescending. Their discussion about the relation of class and race, materialism and spiritualism, is diffused in a liquor-filled and pietistic fog. Instead of a lively interchange, the viewer gets a political "message" from Arcanjo: "It is necessary to reconcile theory and life, and love the people, but not dogma." The "Marxist," who theoretically should have a good answer, is too drunk to reply.

This scene, especially, led white Brazilian leftists to criticize TENT OF MIRACLES for its lack of a solid class analysis. Perhaps Nelson Pereira is taking the side of many black Brazilian leaders, who have accused the white left of ignoring clear evidence of racism. Of course, the white left retorts that there are no problems of discrimination in Brazil, just problems of economics. Whichever side wins out, and even if the truth is discovered midway between these positions, the intricacies of a class analysis should not be left to a drunk. Ideally, of course, the film should explore the myriad intricate connections between race and class in Brazil. [9]

Despite these flaws, and Nelson Pereira's more serious failure to debunk the doctrine of miscegenation as a distortion of Brazilian history and a false route to racial democracy, TENT OF MIRACLES is a landmark film. The double time-frame structure is a bit cumbersome, but the defense and affirmation of black Brazilian culture comes through loud and clear. In a country that has been called the second most important black nation after Nigeria, and where 80% of the black population lives in the poorest areas, the importance of this positive view is evident.

For North Americans, a film which deals honestly with the race question in Brazil is also of utmost importance. Few of us realize that Brazil was the other major slave-holding society in the Western Hemisphere, and the last country in the world to free its slaves, in 1888. Our knowledge of surviving Afro-Brazilian culture is usually limited to exotic visions of spiritualist rites, or perhaps picturesque Rio favelas. Marcel Carné's BLACK ORPHEUS, made in 1969, may still be the most widely viewed picture about Brazil in the United States. Considering its mythologized European view of Brazilian blacks, even Nelson Pereira's "samba step" forward is a vast leap toward reality.

As history and politics, TENT OF MIRACLES does head in the right direction. At the present moment in Brazil, an artist can render no greater service than to condemn racial discrimination. The military dictatorship has been and will continue to be denounced. Now is the time to denounce the "racial democracy." [10]


1. In this essay, the terms "white" and "black" will be used in the North American sense. The term "mulato" will be used to specify a phenotypically brown person of mixed black and white blood. In America, such persons are generally regarded as "blacks." But in Brazil, "mulatos" are consciously separated from persons with predominantly African characteristics, known there as "blacks." "Afro-Brazilian" is the general term applied here to all "black" Brazilians, including "mulatos." In addition, "Afro-Brazilian" and "black African in Brazil" are used interchangeably here to describe cultural practices originating in black Africa.

2. Abdias do Nascimento, "Racial Democracy" in Brazil: Myth or Reality?, trans. Elisa Larkin do Nascimento (Ibadan: Sketch Publishing Co., Ltd., 1977), pp. 57, 25 & 56.

3. The actual number of "black" Brazilians is exceedingly difficult to ascertain. The 1950 census was the last to classify the Brazilian population in racial categories, because it was subsequently decided that definitions of racial categories vary so greatly that it is impossible for census takers to collect credible data. American researchers have estimated that between 1950 and 1973 blacks and mulatos accounted for 35% of the population; according to United Nations figures cited by Abdias do Nascimento, at least 50% of the Brazilian population is black. In the latter's view, even up to 80% of the 120 million Brazilians have African blood, when judged by a "rigorously racial perspective."

4. Sergio Augusto, "Ojú, Obá, Oxalá," and Moniz Sodré, "Mulata da Melhor Mulataria," in Isto E, 23/11/77, pp. 44-46 & 46-47, respectively.

5. In his book Black into White, U.S. historian Thomas Skidmore observes that Freyre's views on race and national character in Brazil did not promote racial egalitarianism. On the contrary, the analysis reinforced the ideal of "whitening." Freyre's black Brazilian critics are more explicit in their denunciations. To them, his influential theories are "paternalistic," "colonialist," and "racist."

6. Beatriz Nascimento, "Nossa democracia racial," Isto E, 23/11/77, pp. 48-49.

7. Miriam Alencar, "O Milagre de um Santo de Casa," Revista do Domingo, Jornal do Brasil, 2, No. 65, 3/7/77, p. 28.

8. História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira, cited by Sergio Augusto.

9. For an excellent summary of the current debate on this issue, see Cláudio Bojunga, "O Brasileiro Negro 90 Anos Depois," Encontros com a Civilização Brasileira, July 1978, pp. 175-204.

10. My special thanks for their inspiration and suggestions in the preparation of this essay go to Robert Stam, Elisa and Abdias do Nascimiento, and Ralph della Cava — partisans of Brazilian culture, committed scholars.


Galvão, Walnice Nogueira, "Amado: respeitoso, respeitável," Ensaios de Opinião, Rio de Janeiro, 1975, pp. 96-100.

Kinder, Marsha, "Tent of Miracles," Film Quarterly, 31, No. 4, Sumer 1978, pp. 45-49.

Johnson, Randal, "Brazilian Cinema Today," Film Quarterly, 31, No. 4, Summer 1978, pp.' 42-45.

Lamounier, Bolivar, "Racismo e o nome de Pelé," Isto E, 23/11/77, Dp. 52-53.

Nascimento, Abdias do, "Nossos negros solitários," Interview with Mirna Grzich, Veja, 28 June 1978.

_________ Sortilege (Black Mystery)(Chicago: Third World Press, 1978).