November 1, 2001

Political Correctness or Censorship: Confederates in the Deep, Deep South

About seven years ago, I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about a “forgotten colony” of American Civil War-era Confederates in the town of Santa Barbara d'Oeste, São Paulo, Brazil. As a Brazilian filmmaker living in Southern California at that time, I had never heard of such a phenomenon as the “Brazilian Dixieland” in my own country!

I had just moved back to the US, having lived here in the 1980s, and I couldn't return to Brazil because of my visa situation. So, I had to wait three years to be able to travel there and shoot a documentary about the thousands of Confederate families and former slaves who left the American South after the Civil War to start a”New South” in Brazil—and introduce the country to the new agricultural technologies and culture of the American South. Slavery was abolished in Brazil not long after the Southerners arrived there, and eventually, both black and white families owned and maintained farms. Today, the descendents of these families—both Confederates and former slaves—celebrate their American Southern ancestry with a Feast Day every April, where thousands of families, black and white, gather and honor their ancestry with parades, picnics and dancing in Civil War uniforms and hoopskirts.

Production on the film lasted a year, mainly because it took that long for me to earn the trust of locals. I was not able to film much when I first visited Santa Barbara d’Oeste for Feast Day in April 1999, but on the last day of that shoot, the locals presented me with a book entitled O Soldado Descansa (The Soldier Rested), a comprehensive history of the region’s ties to the Southern Confederacy. This book, among other resources that I discovered in my research, gave the film a valuable historical foundation that ingratiated me to the Santa Barbarans when I returned to film Feast Day in April 2000.

Coming from the United States, where the Confederate flag has been a volatile and divisive symbol for many generations, to my native Brazil, where the Confederate flag is displayed with pride by African and white Brazilians alike, I made a point of interviewing both races of Brazilians about what the legacy of the Confederacy meant to them. Ironically, where the Confederate flag represents the darkest period in American history, in this part of Brazil it is a catalyzing force for racial and cultural unity and peaceful coexistence.

This strange twist in history, where symbolism is turned upside down when passed from one hemisphere to another, ought to be documented—and seen, not only in Brazil, but particularly in America. But when I tried to submit my finished documentary to major cable networks, I was turned down because my film was considered to be politically incorrect. Now, I have shown my film to both black and white Americans, and I have received many compliments for it; moreover, the film’s opening song, “Home Sweet Home,” is performed by an African American gospel group who was happy to contribute to the film.

Understandably, the image of a black man holding a Confederate flag, taken out of its context, may be construed as offensive. Conversely, the notion of races and cultures co-existing peacefully and equally under the Confederate flag may be considered overly utopian to be believed. But this is really happening in Brazil! And yes, racism does exist in Brazil to some extent, but not to the level that I find here in America.

I believe that there’s a market for my documentary, and I believe that audiences—particularly American audiences, who are so inured to the dark connotations of the Confederate flag—would want to see this film, would want to discover for themselves, as I have, a community that has existed for well over a hundred years and is a part of American history. Documentary filmmakers have a tradition of seeking out unknown stories and bringing them to the surface; moreover, we don’t shy from controversy.

Consider this: Would it be more—or less—politically incorrect to air a documentary about neo-Nazi skinheads, for whom the Confederate flag has a special, albeit repugnant, meaning, or a documentary about a community in Brazil, with roots in America, that has radically reconfigured history and symbolism to the point where the Confederate flag is a symbol of harmony? And would it be politically incorrect to favor one over the other?

 

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Tavares is working on a feature about a 17th century mulatto Brazilian sculptor, Aleijadinho.

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