Perhaps the most interesting film I watched out of the Pan African Film Festival’s 2021 selection, Executive Order, is a Brazilian drama that feels timely and shocking. It first lets us observe these characters in their natural habitats—what they do for fun, how they coexist in a world already against them, and the kinds of relationships that are most important to them. When the deportation elements kick in, the horrific nature of it all is emboldened by the strength of those characterizations. Executive Order is the type of film that will spark meaningful conversations about racism and deportation.
In a future dystopian version of Brazil, ‘high melanin’ individuals (formerly known as black) have set their sights on indemnity. The government takes their view as desperate for social reparations, so they introduce a new, voluntary program for all citizens to ‘return to Africa.’ At first, everyone thinks it’s all one big joke, but the joke of it all morphs into Executive Order 1888. “Go Back to Africa” becomes an actual law of the land. When even slightly African features is cause for immediate deportation, Antonio (Alfred Enoch), Andre (Sue Jorge), and Capitu (Tais Araujo) struggle to survive in a Brazil that is already brazenly opposed to their mere existence.
When the order is carried out, it’s very evocative of the Holocaust and has some obvious parallels. This is made even creepier, since we are robbed of seeing the actual conditions over in Africa. The implications of it seem to say that the African governments are just forced to blindly accept these new arrivals. The scenes are carried out in a shocking way that never borders on exploitative. The Brazilian government is displayed as tyrannical and blatantly racist. Afrobunkers (hiding places for high melanin individuals) are played like secret underground safe zones.
When Alfred Enoch’s Antonio gets trapped in his apartment building with his cousin, Andre, their journey becomes the most interesting part of the movie. Antonio remains separated from Capitu for the majority of the film, as she grapples with troubles of her own. Capitu contemplates how she can emotionally withstand bringing a child into this kind of world. Antonio and Capitu have a love connection that bores down into the core of Executive Order; distance only serves to strengthen their relationship and leaves the audience rooting for their reunion.
It doesn’t open up the world enough to show us the way society at large is reacting to this order. The focus on Brazil and the small set of characters definitely makes it feel smaller-scale, but I don’t think this ever impedes the important messages the film is trying to convey. The abuse and murder that comes from both sides near the climax is awful and heartbreaking. This is punctuated by a jaw-dropping scene juxtaposing two different deaths against one another that will surely be a hot-button talking point. Executive Order isn’t a complete downer of a film, as it does contain messages of hope and acceptance. We can never accept a world completely free of diversity, like the reality these characters are forced to endure. Executive Order was part of both the 2021 slate for the Pan African Film Festival, as well as a selection for SXSW.