Do you see a soccer star or a scientist in this black Brazilian boy?
Do you see a soccer star or a scientist in this black Brazilian boy? Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

This weekend, Northwest Film Forum is screening several films—including this one!—as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's Satellite Screen program. Learn more about the program here.

The background of Gabriel Martins’ film Marte Um (Mars One) is mostly occupied by Jair Bolsonaro, also known as the Trump of the Tropics. It is 2018, and the very white and raw reactionary has just won the presidential election. No one in the film, which has a black working-class family as its center, mentions Bolsanaro. You only have to see him on TV, or see the racial organization of Brazilian society, to see exactly what he stands for. It is clear that the black family, which is composed of a father, mother, daughter, and son, hates the new president. But this fact is never stated. It is in their faces, their challenges, their dreams as black Brazilians who are at the bottom end of what the second half of the 20th century described as the labor aristocracy.

Marte Um never screams about racism or the daily indignities black workers endure. It instead simmers at what feels like a warm temperature that, though rising from scene to scene in its fourth final act, never erupts into a flame that, like Spike Lee's Do Right Thing, predictably lights the dynamite of revolution. Marte Um's director makes it clear on two occasions that revolutionary inspiration, which has been co-opted by TV pranksters and amateur rappers, might be as harmful to black workers as the power wielded by the obviously racist president.

What describes the lower-middle class status of Marte Um's black family (father is a caretaker, mother a part-time cleaner) is its ownership of the key conveniences and technologies of the modern world (smartphones, internet access, kitchen appliances, and so on) and occupation of an apartment that, though small, far surpasses anything you'd find in a classical slum. The Brazilian city in which the film is set, Contagem, is, significantly, a six-hour drive from a city at the center of one of its four main stories, São Paulo, the Blade Runner of the Tropics.

A working-class apartment with a view.
A working-class apartment with a view. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

As race is never mentioned in the film, so is its obvious criticism of a form of consciousness that was once considered to be electrified by a life-and-death struggle with the owners of capital (the oppressors) but is now clearly captured and dulled by popular distractions like reality TV and professional sports, the proletariat. The head of the black family, Wellington (Carlos Francisco), a recovering alcoholic, sees only one side of his daughter Eunice (Camilla Damião) and one side of his son Deivinho (Cícero Lucas). With the former, she is of the marriageable age, and, with the latter, he could become a football star. But the daughter turns out not to be marriageable in the conventional sense (she's a lesbian), and the son's main interest is not dribbling a ball up and down a field but exploring the stars (he wants to become a scientist). The father's second disappointment constitutes the film's main tension and, as such, narrative development. Losing a daughter to lesbianism is not nearly as bad as losing the riches that could be obtained with a position in Brazil's most-popular professional sport.

The father, who has worked hard all his life, and he looks older than his age, does not have the kind of consciousness that can see the value of an interest in science. That is something for upper-class people, who, in Brazil, tend to be white. If you are black and working class, your best way to success is football (soccer). But, in reality, no matter where you stand and who you are, the roulette wheel for becoming a scientist is dramatically smaller than the one for becoming a star athlete. That a considerable section of the black working-class in Brazil can't see this as obvious has much to do with how blacks in the neoliberal period of capitalism are over-represented in professional sports (a very limited section of the job market). In the cultural ecology of media images, we just don't see, with a meaningful frequency, successful black people in professions that demand a considerable investment in higher education.

The same is true in the US, and it indeed forms a second-tier comic leitmotif in the first season of HBO's South Side. In that sitcom, a black single mother has two sons: One has an interest in basketball, the other, like Deivinho, an interest in science. The working-class mother, however, can only see a hoop dream and completely ignores and does not understand her other son's more practical commitment to science. And it's not her fault, as it is not the father's fault in Marte Um to have balling dreams for his son. For every Neil Degrasse Tyson, Deivinho's hero, there appears on TV and the web ten thousand LeBron James. And the man wants it to stay like that.

Marte Um (Mars One) has an in-person screening this Saturday, Jan 29, at the Northwest Film Forum.