Executive Order opens with a card stating that the story takes place “somewhere in the future,” allocating the viewer in an undetermined space that equally dialogues with present and future while simultaneously pulling from the past. Some of the best products of recent Brazilian cinema have been set in the near future – some, like Bacurau, opted for the undated with “a few years from now”, others, such as Divine Love, chose a time near enough to bank on growing anxieties, in this case, 2027. This pattern seems to be the result of a threatened sector that employs its craft as a way to alert the population to the possible consequences of having a government that deliberately undermines its country’s cultural and artistic expression, as is the case with Bolsonaro’s presidency, an era of massive setbacks to Brazil’s film industry.
For decades, Lázaro Ramos has been a household name in Brazil, his work equally accomplished in film, theatre, television and literature. It is unsurprising that, for his directorial debut, Ramos chose to adapt Namíbia, Não! written by Aldri Anunciação. The play, which he directed for years in theatre, rummages through painful wounds connected to Brazil’s grim slavery past and the ripples it still very much has on the country’s treatment of Black people. The film follows cousins Antônio (Alfred Enoch) and André (Seu Jorge), the first a prominent lawyer vocal in his fight for reparation to all descendants of enslaved Africans in Brazil and the latter an equally vocal activist, but whose work takes place in a much more informal setting, given his occupation as a blogger/journalist.
In this future, Black people are called high-melanin, the nomenclature a blatant attempt at erasure barely disguised with good intentions. As the legal battles surrounding compensation to high-melanin people rise to a boiling point, the government concocts a plan to offer all citizens of African descent a one-way ticket to their African country of origin. When the first TV ads begin to circulate, Antônio and André laugh it off, the bizarre offer straight out of a distastefully written sketch. When government officers start knocking on doors, however, things change. It doesn’t take long for the police to employ brutality as a way to force Black people to leave the country. Soon, government bodies are counting the few remaining Black people left – a twisted, decrepit game.
Ramos weaves in several historical easter eggs in the complex patchwork that is Executive Order. From the name of the act that demands high-melanin people to exit the country being 1888, the year slavery was officially abolished in Brazil, to the names of the cousins, a homage to the Rebouças Brothers, pillars of the racial fight and the first Black men to graduate University in the country. With his AfroBunker, a refuge for all Black people in hiding, Ramos truly showcases artistry born from his longtime experience with theatre. Here, set design, wardrobe and cinematography come together to create an ethereal wonderland, a place built to accommodate both celebration and commiseration, to nurture a powerful underground movement.
“So, I decree, we must not get used to this daily struggle” André recites, the text lifted straight out of the original play. In Portuguese, however, the literal translation would be “we must not get used to our daily death” a sentiment that carries a much heavier potency and that harrowingly encapsulates the soul-crushing nature of the scene – one that numbs all senses in its portrait of a reality that pains even deeper in its mundanity. It is also this scene that crowns the performance of the always great Seu Jorge, an actor that navigates comedy and drama with effortless charm. On his side, Enoch is surprisingly great in the extremely challenging position of sharing the screen with not only Seu Jorge, but Taís Araújo, who plays his wife, Capitú (yet another nod to Brazilian history, the name deriving from Machado de Assis’ most iconic character). Araújo, who is Ramos’ real-life wife, is one of the biggest names in Brazilian television, a trailblazer with a career spanning almost 25 years. Her delivery of Capitú is equally tender and fierce, a balance hard to master.
“In a culture of death, living is civil disobedience,” the phrase, shown at a vital point in the story, aptly embodies the film’s central message – one that states anger can be harnessed to fuel hope. A daring intrinsically built directorial debut whose only sins are rooted in passion, Executive Order perfectly places yet another crown in Ramos’ already heavy head and shows that, despite all attempts, Brazilian cinema is very much alive – and it will continue to thrive above all challenges.