Cidade de Deus reflects enormous sociopolitical change in Rio de Janeiro. During the Cold War, as U.S. attention focused internally, Latin American countries began to produce formerly imported goods. Industrialization, and more pertinently urbanization resulted, causing many former slaves to migrate into Rio de Janeiro. Although, as Oliviera writes, “the concentration of blacks in Rio de Janeiro preceded industrialization,” urbanization was already occurring (75). As richer white Brazilians migrated outwards to the suburbs, rapid black urbanization filled the residential areas in Rio (Oliviera 75). The film’s creators casted all African-Brazilians; some were straight from the acting programs of urban Brazil, for its cast of favelados (Hart 205).
After centuries of conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the former established low-income housing in an area proximal to a new industrial center, rapidly increasing population density in the favelas. Cidade de Deus’ plot is told on two timelines, the 1960’s and the 1970’s, and the backgrounds of the two times are remarkably different. Urban areas have gotten larger and denser, and criminal, as well as drug, activity has increased greatly. Unfortunately, not all migrating blacks gained employment in the city. Julio Cesar Pino’s work indicates the amount of available labor producing economic input declined as urbanization increased (20). Leaving many immigrants unemployed, similar to Chicago and New York at the turn of the 20th century, creates a dominant subculture insistent on financial success by criminal means. Now, Cidade de Deus’ depiction of life in the favela in Rio de Janeiro is contrary to Pino’s opening argument that the “notions of the favelado as street urchin, hustler, scavenger, and criminal have persisted for at least a half century. The truth is more complicated but no less dramatic” (18). Pino’s final argument is a matter of honest employment among three major favelas in Brazil. This notion of honest employment is de-emphasized in Cidade de Deus. Only a handful of individuals work honest jobs, and the movie’s creators position these few to become victims to the street crime in the favelas.
Knockout Ned’s conversion from his (only spoken of) life in the favela of the 1960’s to working the bus fares in the 70’s and then his life of crime in Carrot’s gang represents the effect of gang activity. It is possible to draw a causal pattern beginning with the urbanization of the 20th century, to widespread unemployment (or lack of), and finally to a criminal culture in the favelas, like Cidade de Deus. Stephen Hart’s analysis of the film addresses the societal structure of the favelas and the gangs’ impact on Rio. Hart writes that the “other side of the tracks” viewpoint of the city signifies the alternate governing body within the favela (205). Li’l Ze’s rules, compared to those of Knockout Ned, portray him as the ruler of the shanty town. Ned’s rule for no innocents to be killed is an ill-fated one; his best laid plans are ruined and result in his death. Li’l Ze’s choice to accept the life of a criminal prolongs his existence, and only upon overthrow from those he abused does he fall from power.
“Fight and you’ll never survive. Run and you’ll never escape,” said the narrating Rocket. It rings true for all except a small minority. A government decision to relocate all those seeking low income housing coupled with boundaries against advancement, such as unemployment and economic inequality, created the environment for Cidade de Deus, an environment where an honest dollar was harder to gain than a dirty one and a gun was easier to get than a camera.