One of the more interesting facets of Cidade de Deus‘s depiction of urban poverty is the movie’s apparent ignorance of race among the youth portrayed in the favela. This is particularly surprising to an American audience, as our centers of urban poverty are often racially segregated; while favela carries no racial connotations, the closest equivalent term in the United States, ghetto, does specifically refer to slums occupied by impoverished minorities (Oliveira 72-73.) One reason for the seemingly postracial nature of the favela “City of God” may be in the differing attitudes held by Americans and Brazilians toward race.
In the United States, race is often purely determined by skin color, and frequently follows a pattern of hypo-descent, such that an individual of mixed parentage takes on the social category of the parent from the least prestigious group. Brazil’s system is more complex, with the categories preto and pardo both appearing on the census (Oliveira 78.) The social reality is even more fluid, as detailed by Jeffrey M. Fish in his 2005 article “Mixed Blood”: Brazilians rank “race” as Americans know it on a scale of tipos based on multiple physical characteristics, encompassing skin color, hair color and texture, and facial features, among others. As such, “black” and “white” as Americans consider them are imperfectly understood in Brazil, and the binary system under which many Americans operate frequently confuses Brazilians. Race, in Brazil, is seen more as an adjunct to class; the sliding scale on which race operates means that frequently, races blur or disappear through miscegenation (Oliveira 72.) (This is possibly also an effect of a much greater history of race-mixing in Portuguese-settled Brazil [Oliveira 75.])
It is perhaps for this reason that the film chooses not to address racial differences between its main players: to the Brazilian viewer, they are all equally impoverished and forgotten in the City of God. The most powerful man in the Cidade de Deus, Li’l Z, is black in American terms. When Rocket falls madly in love with Angelica, their differing skin tones do not appear to have played a factor in how he evaluates his chances, although she is involved with the paler Thiago at the time. Later, when she falls in love with Benny, race is again not treated as a part of the equation, although Benny would be seen as black where Thiago was white in American terms.
Though the film fails to overtly consider race in its treatment of the violent favela, other reviews are seemingly unable to avoid it: Hart addresses the fairytale nature of Rocket’s romance with the journalist Marina in racial as well as class terms, calling her “a white, middle-class woman who would normally be way out of his league” (Hart 207.) However, Hart too returns to class terms in the end, analyzing this by saying it is Rocket’s ability to appeal to the middle class – not the white middle class – that is his ticket out of the favela (Hart 207.)
In this way, it is possible that Cidade de Deus – and indeed, Brazilian culture – may limit important racial discussion as a result of the less segregated communities (Oliveira 75.) While racial heterogeneity has enabled a broader focus and a class-based attitude towards poverty, it promotes a tendency to overlook the fact that social mobility is most difficult for Brazilians of African descent, the racial gap is widening, and a disproportionate majority of the Rio de Janeiro homeless population is black (Oliveira 77, 82.) Whether this reluctance to discuss race is mere oversight on the part of the film or indicative of a larger social problem is unclear.