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Ebony Goddess: Queen of Ilê Aiyê follows three women competing to be the carnival queen of Ilê Aiyê, a prominent and controversial Afro-Brazilian group with an all-black membership. The selection is based on Afro-centric notions of beauty, in counterpoint to prevailing standards of beauty in Brazil, a country famous for slim supermodels and plastic surgery. Contestants for the title of Ebony Goddess dress in flowing African-style garments, gracefully performing traditional Afro-Brazilian dances to songs praising the beauty of black women.
For Aurelina, Joseane and Talita, the competition for the title of Ebony Goddess is part of a profound and personal search for identity and self-esteem. The figure of the Ebony Goddess, representing a “black is beautiful” view of black women, resonates with women of African descent in Brazil, the United States and throughout the world of the African Diaspora.
For Aurelina the contest has become an obsession. She has competed in the past four years, but never won the contest, although once she placed third. Every year she feels an irresistible need to try again. She says she already feels like a queen, and just needs the title itself.
Talita is taking dance classes, and wants to becomea professional dancer. She earns a living by tutoring kids in the community, and offers free help to kids who cannot afford to pay.
Joseane has recently become involved in the African dance styles of Ilê Aiyê, and counts on the support of her family and friends as she prepares for the competition. Her father has participated in Ilê Aiyê since its early years, when the group was harassed by the police and accused by the media of being racist for having an all-black membership.
Commentary is provided by Antônio Carlos "Vovô", founder and president of Ilê Aiyê, and by Arany Santana, one of the director’s of Ilê Aiyê and current Secretary of Social Development and Fight Against Poverty for the city of Salvador.
Following the three candidates’ daily lives, dance rehearsals, and interactions with each other, Ebony Goddess: Queen of Ilê Aiyê shows the contest’s role in reshaping the idea of beauty in a society in which African descendants constitute the majority of the population but is pervaded by Euro-centric concepts of body esthetics. The concept of the Ebony Goddess creates an alternative view of the black female body as beautiful, desirable, and talented, promoting social change at its most basic level: the individual sense of self.
Salvador, Bahia, is the third largest city in Brazil, with a population of over 2.7 million, about the same as Chicago. Eighty percent of the city is of African descent, making Salvador one of the largest urban black populations outside of Africa. Yet, despite this overwhelming majority, the pervasive influence of the Euro-centric values of the elite minority is striking.
In this social environment, for the past three decades the Bahian Afro-Brazilian group Ilê Aiyê has been an agent of black consciousness, with social work helping individuals in the community, raising collective pride and awareness of African culture, and speaking with a political voice in issues of racial discrimination. The political nature of the concept of beauty has been one of its central concerns, and its carnival queen, the Deusa do Ébano (Ebony Goddess), is a key visual and symbolic element of its carnival procession.
Persecuted by the police and the media during its first years, and still controversial for only allowing blacks to parade with the group, Ilê Aiyê is now a renowned element of Bahia's pre-Lenten festivities. During carnival, the group popularly referred to as "o mais belo dos belos" (the loveliest of the lovely) brings to the streets hundreds of musicians, dozens of dancers, and thousands of members.
Although Ilê Aiyê´s songs are never played on the radio (unless they get recorded by a white performer) and their CDs have very limited commercial distribution, everyone in Salvador knows the words to Ilê's songs. As Ilê Aiyê passes, carnival crowds sing along to songs about the importance of African and African-Brazilian culture and religion.
"Through her delicate and respectful eyes, Carolina Moraes-Liu leads the spectator through the heart of Curuzu, an Afro-Bahian neighborhood where the Black Carnaval group Ilê-Ayê is preparing the choice of its Black queen. The documentary brilliantly presents Bahian Carnaval as a central arena for the promotion of cultural assertion of Afro-Brazilian populations, and a privileged space where Afro-Brazilian women are fighting against racism and developing self-esteem."
- Ana Lucia Araujo, Assistant Professor of History, Howard University
"EBONY GODDESS penetrates the intimacy of Afro-Brazilian women in search of their own expression of beauty. It is a film that help us comprehend the mechanisms of a society that praised miscegenation at the same time that it repressed differential singularities. By dancing, these women became goddesses of their own liberty in the neighborhood of Curuzu, in Bahia, Brazil. I highly recommend this film for Latin American, Brazilian, African Studies, as well as for Film, Drama, Performance Studies, and International Relations."
- Marília Librandi Rocha, Assistant Professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, Stanford University
"Wonderfully engaging film, with beautiful and amazing images. The documentary EBONY GODDESS : QUEEN OF ILÊ AIYÊ twists the coin of segregation and low self-esteem associated with black women in post-slavery Salvador city, putting up instead the face of pride, conscience and joy that play the main role in the rich lives led by these African queens and princesses. The film somehow manages to transport the viewer into the point of view of the subjects, and can serve as a great tool for African American, Latin American, Cultural Anthropology and Women Studies courses dealing with racism, religion, performance, and gender."
- Adelson de Brito, Professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA)
"Delightful and charming."
- Ashmar Mandou, Lawndale Bilingual Newspapers
"A touching tale about blackness, beauty and the girly world."
- Gilson Jorge, Brazil Chronicle
"Recommended. Provides an entry point to discuss cultural standards of beauty, public portrayals of women, and cultural celebrations."Educational Media Reviews Online (EMRO)
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