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SXSW 2021: “Executive Order” Film Review

“Our struggle didn’t start today. It just became more visible.”

These are words spoken by a character in “Executive Order,” a Brazilian film set in a dystopian near future. It was written by Lusa Silvestre, Lázaro Ramos, Aldri Anunciacão and Elísio Lopes, Jr. and directed by Ramos. The film follows everyday Brazilians as an authoritarian government issues an executive order that would send all citizens of African descent out of Brazil and “back” to the continent.

L-R: Andre (Seu Jorge) and Antônio (Alfred Enoch) in “Executive Order” | Photo Courtesy of Elo Company

At the beginning of the film — before the government makes its announcement — we meet Antônio (Alfred Enoch), a member of the Association of High-Melanin Lawyers; it’s clear that “high-melanin” is the term used for Black people in Brazil at this point in the future. He is clearly in a government building to make a presentation about slavery and reparations, but almost no one has showed up to his speech, an early bit of foreshadowing.

Not long after, we see a crowd of reporters watching an older woman go to Banco Central to be the first to receive reparations, with one video blogger being particularly excited to cover the event. It turns out that the blogger is Antonio’s cousin André (Seu Jorge). The bank won’t let the woman in, and the news story suddenly changes from one of triumph to one of defeat.

The other main protagonist is Antônio’s wife, Capitu (Taís Araujo), who is a doctor. She’s introduced as the three of them — along with André’s girlfriend, Sarah (Mariana Xavier), who is Brazilian but not Black — hang out at a bar that night. This is the first glimpse we see of the racism that the group experiences on a regular basis. André is clearly the jokester of the group, but he is also an activist who wants better treatment for his people in the country in which they live.

L-R: Antônio (Alfred Enoch), Capitu (Taís Araujo) and André (Seu Jorge) in “Executive Order” | Photo by Mariana Vianna / Courtesy of Elo Company

The next day, there’s an inescapable ad campaign that presents Black Brazilians with the “opportunity” to go live in Africa as a form of “social reparations.” Antônio and André laugh at the idea, but it’s not long before it changes from an ad campaign to a government decree. Executive Order 1888 is put into place to send Brazilians of African descent to any country in Africa — whether they’ll go willingly or not. All of a sudden, there are no more jokes. Instead, our protagonists experience aggressive drivers, glaring pedestrians and shock jocks spouting racist ideology; they’re all emboldened by the announcement. Then the military and police begin searching for Black people and capturing them.

Capitu, who was at work when this began, ends up running away and getting separated from André and Antônio, who are able to stay in their apartment. The movie becomes a thriller, with the search and capture of citizens reminiscent of scenes from the Holocaust. Even as so many Black people survive and fight against this order — after all, Brazil is their home — you don’t feel as though anyone is safe. It could all end at any moment for our protagonists, especially once the government cut off phones, cable, internet and water to the homes of anyone of African descent. The authoritarian government would rather these citizens die — it’s a “cost reduction,” as one official points out — than remain in South America.

The film, which is from SXSW’s 2020 Spotlight category, is in Portuguese (with English subtitles), and it’s Enoch’s Brazilian film debut. The whole cast does a fantastic job of portraying the highest highs of love and bliss together, as well as the lows that the characters must endure while trying to survive and stay in Brazil. I found Enoch and Araujo particularly riveting as a married couple who each have no way of knowing if the other is okay during the tumult.

Capitu (Taís Araujo) in “Executive Order” | Photo by Mariana Vianna / Courtesy of Elo Company

I won’t give away how the film ends, but you should know going in that there are scenes of joy and thriving, as well as scenes of suffering and even death. There are parallels to footage of the American civil rights movements, both from the 1960s and the past decade. It can sometimes be difficult to watch, because these are not lighthearted matters, and the reactions of people on different sides of the issue feel very real. The phrases “I’m just doing my job” and “Now everyone is called racist” both come up in this film — just a few words, but with a strong message.

There is also a parallel to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” in that there is an Asian character who clearly understands some of the racism experienced by Black people, but in a very different sense. According to Ramos, “When Jordan Peele comes with ‘Get Out’ some years ago I was in the middle of the process with my movie, then I understood there was another way for this. I don’t want to compare it with the films he makes but I think they may belong to the same family. Of course it was very inspiring too.”

“Executive Order” co-writer and director Lázaro Ramos | Photo Courtesy of Lata Filmes

Ramos directed this film beautifully, even when there was more ugliness to showcase than beauty. The cinematography blends the style of street art with the chill of empty streets with nowhere to hide. But there is power in the resistance that is shown throughout the film. “This film is a result of a build up of my experiences and an attempt to find another way to debate this matter,” says Ramos.

Though I don’t know much about the specifics of Brazilian politics (or the Black experience anywhere, for that matter), I believe the film’s message and power can be summed up by a phrase that shows up at the end: “In a culture of death, living is civil disobedience.”

Director/co-writer Lázaro Ramos will be doing a live chat on Thursday, March 18, at 5:00 p.m. CST. Get more information here.

Featured Photo by Mariana Vianna / Courtesy of Elo Company

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