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#7 – The Revolution of Afro-Italians Starts on the Small Screen

Posted on Nov 6, 2015 in The Wall | 0 comments

Tezeta Abraham, actress and model

It is a great pleasure and honor for us to publish here the English translation of an article written by Italian-Somali writer Igiaba Scego and released on 31 October 2015 on Internazionale online magazine as La rivoluzione degli afroitaliani parte dal piccolo schermo.

We remember that is out now her latest novel, Adua (Firenze/Milano: Giunti, 2015), intertwining the stories of a Somali translator in fascist and colonialist Italy and that of her daughter Adua, an expat to Italy protagonist of an imaginary softcore movie in mid 1970s.

We warmly thank Igiaba Scego for writing this article and for giving us her consent to have it republished here only for you, readers of Cinemafrodiscendente.

The Revolution of Afro-Italians Starts on the Small Screen

Igiaba Scego

31 October 2015


Perhaps for many people October 8, 2015 was not a particular day. The usual news of devastation and corruption from all over the world, the usual Rome underground blocked off, the usual clouds in the sky. But for the community of Afro-Italians and Afro-friends it was a special day. On Rai 1 actress Tezeta Abraham made her debut with TV series È arrivata la felicità (That’s Happiness).

What was special in it? Tezeta is a Djibouti-born young woman, landed in Rome when she was five. An Ethiopian for her origins, a Roman for her complexion, Tezeta is in fact the summary of two continents that she carries merrily on her shoulders. She has a shining smile, recalling to many Julia Roberts, and a stage presence that allowed her to work as a model for many years.

Tezeta is beautiful, very beautiful. Even in recent times, star system might have eaten someone like her from both ends. It might have relegated her in marginal and stereotyped roles. She would have been hired to play a sex worker, a caregiver or a poor, desperate gal at best.

On the contrary, despite the blindness and lack of adherence to reality reflected in scripts, she managed to assert herself. Together with some colleagues like Esther Elisha and Gamey Guilavogui she could impose a new agency to her roles. She brought into the screen the strength and the enthusiasm of second generation boys and girls, who are Italian as a fact but are treated like strangers by journalists and politicians. That’s why so many people couldn’t wait to watch her getting started on È arrivata la felicità. The character of Tezeta Abraham breaks new ground in Italian TV series.

Tezeta plays the role of Francesca, a woman working in a bookstore, not so happy with men, though. A sort of black Bridget Jones, with multicolor sweaters to set true Bridget to envy.

Further, her Roman accent “rocks”, young people may say, as it reinforces her rough voice. It rocks indeed, symbolically linking her to the tradition of the best Italian film, where Cinecittà studios were transformed into periphery, into a narrative, into life. Playing with famous actors like Claudia Pandolfi and Claudio Santamaria didn’t make her look bad, she managed instead to give a breath of popular freshness to a TV series played over the top, almost hysterical at times. With her brief appearances, Tezeta strengthened the structure of the TV series.

Francesca’s Tezeta makes another good point, namely that of being a mirror for many Afro-Italian girls who work, study and love in this Italy, more and more mixed, that can’t possibly recognize itself as such. Italy tells not much, especially in televisions, about the change it has been facing since the 1970s.

You can’t find Afro-Italians in Italian television (film too suffers from the same illness) but often neither Jews, nor Muslim or Roma people. Or else they play roles under the sign of tragedy, despair, scaremongering, or crime. That’s why the smile (and the sweaters) of Tezeta Abraham have been so revolutionary.

A small revolution indeed, that only a few did notice, but still a revolution. Tezeta with her Francesca showed that another narrative is possible in Italy too and that stories of inclusion, of daily mixing and of multicultural society can be told in an old medium like television, one that is still at the very center of our lives.

In Italy this awareness is only at the beginning. Still, it’s not the same for film and television. There’s a long association between Africa and Italy that dates back to colonial period. Films such as Sentinelle di bronzo (Dusky Sentries, 1937) by Romolo Marcellini, with Doris Duranti playing the role of Somali Dahabo, had Somali and Eritrean stand-ins. The same applies to other feature films such as Squadrone bianco (White Squadron), Luciano Serra pilota (Luciano Serra Pilot), Giarabub. How can we forget then the numerous Ines Pellegrini, Zeudi Araya, Lola Falana who filled the screens of Italian peninsula in 1960s and 1970s?


The Difficulty of Being a Minority

To keep a trace of this complex and sometimes contradictory history a blog was born, written in English but absolutely made in Italy, with an evocative name: Cinemafrodiscendente.

Their promoters wanted to create a virtual site where the narrative of those film plots could not be lost. A virtual archive where the experience of African born or Afrodescendant actors, directors, technicians involved in Italian film industry could be mapped out.

The blog aims not only at keeping the memory alive, but also at creating links between the Italian experience with other similar experiences all around the world.

Being a minority, as a matter of fact, is not easy anywhere. The system of representation is in fact encircled with walls, ditches, obstacles. The reference model is always that of white heterosexual male, protestant or catholic. Whoever is outside – women aged over 50, Afrodescendants, LGBT communities – must fight to be represented and for his/her/their right to a proper representation.

Actress Viola Davis knows it well. Davis was the first African American woman to receive an Emmy Award and won it this year as best actress in a TV drama series for her role in How to Get Away with Murder, where she played magnificently the lawyer Annalise Keating.

Her speech at the Emmy Awards ceremony was unbelievably powerful. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else – Davis said – is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black”.

Also Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo are protagonist, sexy and black. They form a well known couple in Brazil: fofocas (gossip) magazines name them the Brazilian Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

They are beautiful, fascinating, full of irony and with a great will to put themselves on the line. They are all the rage with a telenovela – a very serious staff in Brazil, something the entire nation stops to watch – titled Mister Brau.

In the first episode, the rich couple is taking a night dip in the pool of their villa. Watching two blacks in a pool, a white neighbor thinks: “Oh God, there are thieves!”. She calls the police and the two of them get arrested. Nobody can imagine at first that they are the very owners of the villa.

The faces of the policemen are eloquent, stumped and somewhat distressed. Is it true that even black people can be rich? Can they be high-class? Can they be the leads in a love story? Mister Brau deconstructs stereotypes burying them with a laughter. Brazil is not used to it. For everybody it’s the land of multiculturalism and mixing.

But the color line – that historian, political theorist, writer and sociologist Du Bois considered the problem of the Twentieth Century – penetrates the bodies of Brazilian people, sometimes breaking them apart. Racism does exist. And Afrodescendants have always been underrepresented and stereotyped.

Further, in Brazilian society blacks (and Indios too) have been driven to “whitewash” themselves and to hate their own color. Still nowadays, being black in Brazil means to have fewer opportunity. In a public meeting, that took place in bookshop Giufà, Rome, Brazilian writer of Venetian origins Luiz Ruffato denounced the hypocrisy of so called postracial Brazilian society, highlighting that racism is there and is also increasing.

In Brazil almost every day a lynching takes place and victims are most of the time Afrodescendant or LGBT community members. In Brazil homophobia and racism walk hand in hand. The same warning call was issued by singer, writer and poet Chiquo Buarque de Hollanda, familiar with the beast of racism, which he was always a fierce opponent of.

Racism entered his life when her daughter married musician Carlinhos Brown, known in Italy mostly for his album Tribalista, featuring also Marisa Monte and Arnaldo Antunes. Now separated, at the time of their marriage, the couple was forced to leave the apartment in a middle-class condo in Gávea, Rio de Jaineiro, because their son, nephew of Chico, suffered attacks by some co-tenants.

That’s why, despite its lightness, a soap opera like Mister Brau is in fact revolutionary. In a big country like Brazil a part of the society couldn’t up to now recognize itself in no narrative and no color. Not only in Brazil, programs aiming to fight against discrimination, racial hate and stereotypes could help. Social and school programs. But also TV series can contribute to the battle.

Series, even though created for television, are re-launched by social media, generate myths, give rise to modes, produce models and sometimes manage to surprise us as well.

In UK for instance, they are all crazy for Nadiya Hussain. Nadiya is a 30-years-old housewife, a mother of three children, and a perfect unknown up to three months before.

This woman of Bangladeshi origins is today one of the most loved women in UK. Magazine Hello dedicated to her its cover page. Nadiya Hussain makes a splash, like the queen and J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter saga. She was photographed with Nicole Kidman and fans adore her thousand expressions.

Nadiya is a Muslim, she dresses soberly and wears multicolored veils that she changes depending on the case. She popularized Luton, her rather anonymous town. All of this, thanks to her passion for cooking cakes. Nadiya, in fact, won the TV cooking show The Great British Bake Off and with her sympathy conquered an entire country.

Of course, someone tried to diminish her victory, by saying it was all an attempt from BBC, that she was to get the Brits to digest the “cake” of political correctness. Others instead lashed out at her veil.

Amanda Platell, a journalist of Daily Mail, went so far as to say that a white British semi-finalist could stand a better chance to winning if only replaced her chocolate carousel with a big chocolate mosque.

Still, apart from isolated voices, that of Nadiya is a resounding success. Politically correctness in the end has little to do with it. It was her spontaneity, her self-irony and her sympathy that was to earn her the love from the British.

Her twitter account @BegumNadiya is tremendously popular. Everyone is hanging on her word to know which psychedelic cake she will invent, or which make up will she use to exalt her beauty. Nadiya is beautiful, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously and has a face that’s not afraid of expressing her feelings. That’s what the audience got immediately.

Nadiya is actually a viral phenomenon. And that tells us something important about our societies that are becoming increasingly multicultural. The glance of the audience, in Italy just like in UK, in Brazil or in France is changing. It’s a multicultural glance itself. In front of the TV or the screen of a computer you don’t find only white heterosexual male anymore, namely the reference model for every TV program or series in the past. You find women (of very age), persons of every religion (but also atheist), diverse nationalities, different sexual preferences, varied sensitivities.

Whoever writes, thinks, produces programs and films must consider those subjectivities that before were silenced. Also in the fashion world they’re starting to realize that.

It is not by chance if a store chain like H&M chose as cover girl Mariah Idrissi, a young Londoner of Pakistan and Moroccan origins wearing an Islamic veil since she was 17. Top clothing franchises today propose each kind of dress, from tight leggings to suits concealing curves, for reasons of size or religious belief.

Websites on how to take care of afro hairs come thick and fast, for example (just consider Italian Afro Italian Nappy Girls, consulted everyday by thousands of girls all over the peninsula). That world once silent has picked up the remote control (and maybe life) and pretends to be represented properly. Screenwriters are advised.

Translation: Leonardo De Franceschi

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