The Ministry of Return: A Futuristic “Final Solution” to the “Race Problem”

Undaunted, the pandemic can’t stop the Pan African Film Festival and in that immortal show biz tradition, the show must go on! Albeit virtually, as this year in order to stay cinematically safe, America’s largest and best yearly Black-themed filmfest since 1992 is moving online and starting later than usual, kicking off on the last day of Black History Month. 2021’s 29th annual Pan African Virtual Film + Arts Festival is taking place from Feb. 28 – March 14.

Director/co-writer Lazaro Ramos’ award winning Executive Order exemplifies what I love most about PAFF: This festival gives movie buffs the opportunity to see films – often from far-flung destinations around the globe – that we might otherwise never have the chance to watch. Often these are worthy, well-made productions that PAFF is also giving access and a foothold to at Los Angeles, arguably the world’s capital of cinema (although not necessarily the capital of “world cinema” per se).

Executive Order is set in and shot on location in Brazil (and is in Portuguese, with English subtitles). This vast nation is comprised of a sprawling tapestry of ethnicities. According to Celine Cousteau’s excellent new documentary Tribes on the Edge, there are indigenous villagers in the Amazon region who still, in the 21st century, have not experienced contact with outsiders.

Brazil’s ethnic mix also includes another startling fact that many Americans don’t know: Brazil has the Western Hemisphere’s largest population of people with African ancestry, approximately 75 million out of a 211 million-plus inhabitants.

(As PAFF is “Pan” and very ecumenical in its perspective and inclusion of Blacks, from the USA to Mother Africa to the Caribbean to “Latin” America to Melanesia, etc., this Festival embraces films from those regions, and of course from Brazil, that behemoth of South America. PAFF’s inclusive ethnic reach is yet another great thing about this filmfest. But I digress.)

Despite – or because – of its vast Black population, in1888 Brazil became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, a quarter century after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As one can imagine, racism remains an issue for contemporary Brazilians, whether they are aboriginal peoples or of African descent, etc.

All this is backdrop for the gripping plot of Executive Order, which like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is a dystopian look at a futuristic society. In the not-too-distant future, Brazilians of primarily European lineage impose a “solution” to racial inequality wherein Brazil finds a much cheaper way to deal with the issue of expensive reparations, instead of

paying the descendants of enslaved people the “back wages” they are due because their ancestors, forced to work as free labor, are historically owed.

In Executive Order this “cancelled indemnity” calls on the so-called “high melanin” people to instead be given a one-way ticket to return to Africa, where they will settle in countries such as Angola (also formerly colonized by Portugal). At first this “return yourself” government program is voluntary. (Remember Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” immigration proposal during the 2012 presidential campaign?)

But of course, most Black Brazilians have never set foot in Africa and don’t even speak the same languages as most Africans. As resistance leader Antonio (English-Brazilian actor Alfred Enoch of the Harry Potter film franchise and How To Get Away With Murder TV series) proclaims: “Brazil is mine too! I was born here!”

So soon, the chillingly named, Orwellian-sounding “Ministry of Return” steps up its campaign by rounding up Blacks and forcibly deporting them back to Africa – whether they want to go or not. This triggers riots, police brutality and the emergence of underground “Afro Bunkers,” where Blacks flee and hide out in order to escape persecution and forced deportation.

(These “Afro Bunkers” call to mind the swamps and other settlements that runaway enslaved people, the “Maroons,” escaped to and established in America. Whereas today, disgraced white trash “Morons” flee to Mar-a-Lago.)

Executive Order focuses on Antonio, an attorney; his wife, the pregnant doctor Capitu (the beautiful Taís Araújo, who is married to helmer Ramos and played the title character in the sexy TV series Xica da Silva, a telenovela spinoff of a popular 1976 Brazilian movie of the same name about a woman who apparently is an expert at oral sex); their roommate and friend, the journalist Andre (Seu Jorge, who has crossed over from Brazilian movies such as 2002’s City of God and the 2019 anti-dictatorship biopic Marighella to Hollywood pictures like 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou); and Andre’s white girlfriend Sarah (Mariana Xavier). The stylish, well-crafted film follows the quartet as they try to resist the Ministry of Return in Rio de Janeiro.

Embracing Brazil’s diversity, Executive Order’s complex story includes Asian characters (don’t forget that the neighboring nation of Peru has had a president of Japanese descent) plus a gay subplot and references to diabetes. The talented cast’s other veteran Brazilian thesps include Paulo Chun, Jéssica Ellen, Rincon Sapiência, Adriana Esteves and the English actor William Russell, whose extensive credits include 1963’s The Great Escape, 1978’s Superman – and being the father of Alfred Enoch.

For those who may regard Executive Order’s plot of forced returns to be too far-fetched, they should consider the fact that Brazil’s current far right President, Jair Bolsonaro, is such a despotic extremist nitwit that he is nicknamed “the Trump of the Tropics” – and we all know The Donald’s despicable views regarding matters pertaining to race and immigration, as well as his dictatorial predilection of ruling by fiat through “executive orders.” In this light, while provocative and evocative, Ramos and his cowriters’ theme of coerced repatriation may not stretch credulity too much. The title of their film also echoes that of another politically charged movie, 1973’s Executive Action, about a rightwing conspiracy to assassinate JFK, co-written by Dalton Trumbo and Donald Freed.

Ramos’ resume includes acting in many movies, like 2000’s Woman on Top, starring Penelope Cruz, plus a few writing and producing credits. With Executive Order’s thought-provoking plot about racial injustice, high production values and stellar acting, Ramos’ directorial debut marks an auspicious launch of a filmmaker to be reckoned with on the international stage in the years to come. Film fans should keep their eyes on this up-and- coming director – and put their eyes on this compelling drama set in the near future, and BTW, keep watching through the end credit sequence too.

Executive Order was nominated for “Best Film” at the Moscow International Film Festival and won a “Scriptwriting Award” at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, where it was also nommed in the “Best Narrative Feature” category. This imaginative movie is a highly recommended film from Brazil that personifies PAFF’s motion picture panache and ethos. I loved it so much that Executive Order made me want to go out and get a “Brazilian”!

For more info about Executive Order see: Pan African Film FestivalExecutive Order - PAFF 2021.

For info about PAFF see: Pan African Film FestivalPAFF 2021 - Black films from across the world.