“Go back to where you came from” is a phrase that has pained the ears of many American immigrants and has long been the playing ground of your run-of-the-mill racist. From the birther movement that sought to out former President Barack Obama as Kenyan to the incomplete, cartoonishly spiked border wall separating the United States from Mexico to the micro-aggressive ubiquity of the question “where are you really from?”, it’s abundantly clear that white America has a complicated relationship with people who may not look like them.
And if America’s racism and xenophobia weren’t enough, they aren’t isolated belief systems — “go back to where you came from” is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In Brazilian film “Executive Order,” an adaptation of the stage-play “Not to Namibia!”, screenwriter Lusa Silvestre (“Gloria and Grace”) and writer-director Làzaro Ramos (in his feature film debut), take the vitriolic statement and run fast and far to produce a film that is both vitally entrenched in Brazilian culture and imminently communicable across the globe.
The film opens in an ambiguously distant future with an elderly Black woman preparing to get her first indemnity check as reparations for centuries of slavery. But it’s a bait-and-switch: The Brazilian government pulls out at the last minute. They explain that they don’t have the money but promise to put forth an alternative solution toward rectifying the injustices committed against “high-melanin” peoples (as is the new term for Black people in the future of the film). Considering all the Black folk seem dissatisfied with how the Brazilian government does things, the “solution” it ends up offering is simple enough: “Return yourself now.” In the movie, this voluntary program is met with laughter. Until it’s not so voluntary.
Antonio (Alfred Enoch, “Tigers”), André (Seu Jorge, “Marighella”) and Capitú (Taís Araújo, “Amor de Mãe”) are a trio of Black Brazilians that laughed and laughed until the joke became real and the appropriately dystopian Ministry of Return began forcibly rounding up Black people. They each do what they can to resist.
The film is steeped in Brazilian culture in such a way that an understanding of Brazil and its history would undoubtedly enrich a viewer’s experience. For example, when Capitú finds refuge in an “Afro-bunker,” it’s explicitly compared to a quilombo, a settlement of escaped slaves that hid away in the South American hinterlands from Portuguese colonial society. But, despite the cultural specificities, the film is likely to strike a familiar chord for American viewers in its discussion of race and identity.
Sometimes the logical extreme of the film’s premise ventures into the illogical extreme. Capitú is a doctor and when the government troopers come for her, she’s in the middle of a procedure; the fair-skinned patient is left open on the operating table, as confused as the viewer is. Trumping all other quibbles is the fundamental nature of the premise itself: In removing all the Black people in Brazil, the government is deporting over half of the nation’s population, approximately over 100 million people.
Other times, the ridiculousness is part of the point. The film’s titular executive order declares that any individual with “even the slightest” appearance of African heritage is to be deported to an African nation of their choice. Little moments populate the film to bring attention to the asinity of such a metric. One character ironically asks whether someone with vitiligo would be deported in an attempt to poke fun at the absurdity of trying to suss out and define who is or isn’t Black and who is or isn’t Brazilian. For example, a Black mother was separated from her albino child, an armor-clad Ministry of Return man ridiculously shouting, “She stays, you go!” Additionally, when a nosy white woman (the Karen phenomenon was not lost on Ramos and Silvestre) with kinkier hair than a stereotypical white person goes to the Ministry of Return to report her Black neighbors, she is asked if she was there to turn herself in.
These moments are all obviously set against a dystopian backdrop, but as with all great dystopia, “Executive Order” uncomfortably highlights how this ostensibly irrational metric functions in our own societies. Whether it be related to colorism, multiracialism, the ability to pass for white — there’s a kaleidoscope of issues and phenomena borne of the fixation on gradations in skin color that “Executive Order” zeroes in and magnifies to satisfyingly cinematic proportions.
Though it dips in and out of verisimilitude, the film still contains what certainly feels like a grain of truth. And with plenty of movie moments, both sardonically funny and movingly dramatic, it’s not hard to call “Executive Order” a success.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.