An Interview With The Filmmaker Behind 'La Negrada'—The First Feature Film Starring an All Afro-Mexican Cast
Still from 'La Negrada.' Image courtesy of Jorge Pérez Solano

An Interview With The Filmmaker Behind 'La Negrada'—The First Feature Film Starring an All Afro-Mexican Cast

The widely praised film has ignited some controversy in its portrayal of Afro-Mexicans. We chat to director Jorge Pérez Solano to get some insight.

This August, OkayAfrica shines a light on the connections between Africa and the Latin-American world. Whether it's the music, politics or intellectual traditions, Africans have long been at the forefront of Latino culture, but they haven't always gotten the recognition. We explore the history of Afro-Latino identity and its connection to the motherland.

When most people think of Mexico and its cultural mosaic, images of Mexicans of African descent generally don't spring to mind. According to anational survey taken in 2015 by the country's national census bureau known as INEGI, approximately 1.4 million people or 1.2 % of the population self-identify as Afro-Mexican, the majority concentrated in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz.

La Negrada, is the very first fiction feature film about and starring an all Afro-Mexican cast. The film written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Jorge Pérez Solano is set along the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca. Solano a Oaxaca native, although not of African descent himself, he mentioned in aninterview he gave about the film on Excelsior TV that he wanted, "to raise awareness of the plight of Afro-Mexicans who are largely forgotten."

Africans first arrived on Mexican shores by force, as slave labourers brought by Spanish colonists as early as the 16th century. Although slavery was officially abolished in the early 1800's by a newly independent nation, the legacy of disenfranchisement still lingers deeply. Like many indigenous communities in Mexico, the descendants of Africans suffer from severe poverty with a lack of access to basic resources and infrastructure, along with heavily ingrained systematic and social prejudice towards them. This prejudice is compounded by the fact that Afro-Mexicans are yet to be included as an ethnic or cultural group in the national census. A result of this lack of official recognition, they continue to be excluded from access to government subsidized programs for marginalised minority groups, despite the harsh reality of their current circumstances.

Regardless of their arrival centuries prior, many Mexicans are unaware of the contribution and, even existence, of their fellow citizens of African descent. The historical narrative and societal contribution of Afro-Mexicans is largely excluded from mainstream pedagogy, smudged from the contemporary consciousness and socio-political discourse. As anarticle in the Huffington Post points out, the national survey taken in 2015 was the first time the Mexican government recognized its citizens of African descent. The results of this survey, serving as a preliminary count to the 2020 census where 'black' will debut as an official category.

I attended a screening of La Negrada during its opening weekend of the 11th of August at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City to a sold-out session. It was exciting to witness the enthusiasm and support of this historical work of art. However, the film left me with mixed emotions. Realist in its style and tone, and borrowing elements of cinéma vérité, the film exists in a place where the line between reality and fiction is blurred. Flawlessly shot with deliciously long takes that soak up the interactions between a non-professional cast whose performances still manage to be effortless.

On a different note, however, the characters appear to be framed through a negative stereotypical lens: black men as hyper-sexual, poor father figures and black women as subordinate to their male counterparts. In between this, we see snippets of the character's experiences of prejudice and racism within the broader society.

I wasn't alone in my sentiments with several organisations expressing their discontent including Mexico Negro, Xenofobia en Mexico, and Afrodescendencias en Mexico who shared their qualms with the film, through the release of a jointstatement denouncing its use of stereotypes, amongst other issues they had with the film and Solano.

I caught up with the director a few days after the screening in Mexico City. He faced my questions with a calm and open energy as he carefully contemplated my words before answering each question. We talked various things film and non-film related, but mostly importantly, I wanted to hear his insights on the making of La Negrada. Read on for a snapshot of our conversation.

Image courtesy of Jorge Pérez Solano.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired the making of La Negrada? How did the idea come about and how did the story evolve?

I wanted to make a film about the Afro-Mexican community to increase their visibility as an ignored part of our society. I spent time living in and around different Afro-Mexican communities along the Costa Chica region in Oaxaca for a total of six months in the space of a two-year period. During this time, I listened to various stories both positive and negative and observed various interactions. In the elementary stages of my research, I came across anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán's work, Cuijla, Esbozo etnográphico de un pueblo negro in which he documents the concept of 'el queridato', a socially accepted custom amongst the Afro-Mexican population of Cuijla, whereby a man has a principal relationship but lives with more than one women.

Although this work was first published in the 1950's, I found the custom of el queridato as still accepted amongst the Afro-Mexican communities in certain areas of Oaxaca. Some actors in the film have first-hand experience living under these circumstances or knew of people who were undergoing these experiences. I decided to base the script around the custom of el queridato which I think echoes a larger issue within Mexican society.

Image courtesy of Jorge Pérez Solano.

There's been both praise of your film for highlighting the experiences of Afro-Mexicans and elevating their plight to the national stage. As well as controversy surrounding the portrayal of this tiny coastal Afro-Mexican community in Oaxaca. Several organisations have voiced their concerns, seeing it as a negative stereotypical portrayal of black people. What are your thoughts on these concerns?

I never intended to offend anyone, much less the Afro-Mexican community. I'm from Oaxaca one of the most marginalised states in the country and my family was poor when I was growing up. My father was indigenous and I have pronounced indigenous features. I've experienced a lot of racism and prejudice due to being a native Oaxacan, having a poor family background and looking overtly Indigenous. My life experience and feeling, at times, excluded in my own country is the reason why I create awareness of marginalised sectors of our society. I make these communities visible in my films. My intention was to make a film to raise awareness of the plight of Afro-Mexicans to increase their visibility and start a dialogue about our national identity.

As a filmmaker, I illuminate aspects of society, certain 'truths' I see which I see as being ignored, whether they're positive or negative. However, the audience is free to take away what they will from the story.

Image courtesy of Jorge Pérez Solano.

Of the plethora of themes you could have focused on regarding the Afro-Mexican community. Why did you choose to focus on the concept of el queridato?

I chose to focus the story on the social custom of el queridato because it's not merely a concept related to the Afro-Mexican community. However, it's related to a much larger issue of machismo within Mexican society, especially within more remote regions and vulnerable communities.

All three of my feature films, including Espiral (2008) and La tirirsia (2014), deal with female characters living under the control of a macho establishment. Each film deals with women who are abandoned by men whom these women crave an eternity with, but in the end, their value is reduced to merely a maternal condition.

With La Negrada, I wanted to raise awareness of the plight of Afro-Mexicans in a way which reflects broader societal issues. I wanted to capture a story that is relatable to everyone, one that demonstrates that we're all Mexicans with similar issues regardless of our history.

Image courtesy of Jorge Pérez Solano.

Did you collaborate with any Afro-Mexican writers and filmmakers or organisations for this project?

I collaborated with the Afro-Mexican communities I did my research with, the people that I lived amongst in Oaxaca. Some of these people also star in the film. In 2018, there are no professional Afro-Mexican actors, screen writers or filmmakers—that's very disappointing. I may have made the first film about our citizens of African descent. However, it's important for them to have a profile to continue this conversation and be supported to tell their own stories.

What key message would you like people to take away after watching La Negrada?

That there's a community that forms an important part of our history and contemporary society which we ignore. It's important that we recognise them and treat them equally.

What positive aspects do you think afro-descendants have contributed to Mexico?

So much. But apart from the obvious things like food, music, dance and other art forms—their stories, pride, struggle and perseverance are all things we can learn so much from. It forms an integral part of and further enriches Mexico's identity.