Lázaro Ramos’ directorial debut imagines a world where the “go back to Africa” slur becomes law. In a dystopian version of Brazil, those deemed “high melanin” are targeted by a government mandate that requires them to immediately leave the country for Africa. Young lawyer Antônio (Alfred Enoch), his wife Capitu (Taís Araújo) and cousin André (Seu Jorge) are just three of many citizens caught in the fallout, and are forced to confront their ideas of resistance when backed into various life-threatening situations. The film’s plausibility is one of its most gripping factors. Despite being based on a play and conceived prior to this past year’s racial reckoning, Executive Order’s alternate reality isn’t very far from our own. In conversation with director Lázaro Ramos and lead actress Taís Araújo, I had the opportunity to learn more about the choices that went into creating this film and what emotions they hoped to evoke from its audience.
SR: Thank you both for joining me! To start, I know you two have done a lot of work together in the past and I’d love to hear more about the experience of collaborating on this film.
LR: Well, I don’t know if you know, but we are married. [laughs] We have worked together since 2007 and we really love working together, but this movie was a challenge because it was my first time directing and because of this character for Taís. She’s an incredible actress, very intelligent, but it was challenging. This was a chance to make a movie about identity and race, and trying to change the mindset about black artists and about those subjects is a huge challenge. But we are very happy too and for me, it’s a pleasure and it’s a victory.
TA: Well, I love working with him. We’ve been married for almost 17 years and we started work after a year and a half of being married. And since then we’ve been improving work together. That’s the truth. At first… it wasn’t that good. [laughs] But as the years have passed by, we really improved the way we worked together.
LR: And you know, there’s something curious there because we made this movie and at the same time we were playing a couple on a TV series and in the theater, we were playing “The Mountaintop,” a play about Martin Luther King. And we were together for twenty-four hours a day.
TA: But not like pandemic times. [laughs] That was two years ago, and it was all really good. And I loved being directed by him because… I don’t know, I think because I can really get at what he says and needs from me.
LR: She understands me. Taís is the only actress that understands me completely.
TA: The thing is that, I believe in you. I don’t always know what’s passing through his mind, but I know the process. He begins in a way that nobody truly gets what he’s saying… [laughs] But then it works. I really trust in him and I know that at the end of that process, it will be good.
LR: In this movie, for example, many people told me it’s impossible to put comedy in this movie: “no, it’s just a drama” “the movie is this not that” and Taís is the only person who understood.
TA: With “The Mountaintop,” that play has a lot of humor in it and a lot of drama. Sometimes people like to have a specific kind of genre organization but we like getting everything together, because life is like that. We can talk about serious things and we can laugh at the end.
SR: Along those lines, there are these really beautiful moments early in the film with the three main characters. There’s a lot of joy when they’re alone in the apartment. Can you talk about what the intent was for those moments?
LR: This movie is based on a play that I directed in 2007. When we transformed this history for the movie, we knew we did not want to talk just about Black pain, but about our power, our humor, our failures… About our humanity. And the apartment was very important for that. When they dance, Capitu and Antônio, before their fears come out, they dance because it’s a part of them. This movie is an attempt to talk about all our layers.
SR: With the three main characters in particular, there seems to be this idea of representing different approaches to resistance.
LR: Yeah, there’s an obvious difference. We were inspired, for Antônio and André, by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. But of course, it’s not a documentary, just inspiration. Because Antoinio thinks it’s possible to change the world with words and negotiating, while André talks about needing to fight and punch and scream. And Capitu, for me, is a new approach, a new kind of character. There are many strong Black women with doubts about their identity. In the beginning, Capitu wants just to be herself and improve her career, but she notices it’s important to be part of the fight and the struggle.
TA: Some [people] have the right to not think about anything and just be themselves. This character is a woman who didn’t think about her blackness before, but had to think about it after the order and after her pregnancy. She had to stop just being and realized, “Okay, I need to do something about the world for my kid.” She was in the middle of the mess and she needed to do something. And when she got inside the Afro Bunker, she was amazed by the place, by all the Blackness there and she was changed.
SR: She has this really great speech near the end, when she’s in the bunker. Did that moment change your perception of the character?
TA: It’s a line that we got from “The Mountaintop,” where my character there says “[Black] women are the mule of the world. In a very similar scene, Capitu says it too. But they are very different characters – one who knows everything about her Blackness and one who tries to cover it – but they are still Black women. We are multiple, we are really different, but we are still Black women. That is one thing that connects all of us, in spite of where we come from. And that’s why we decided to put the same scene and the same line in this part of the movie, because of that connection.
SR: Was there anything else, watching the movie back, that unexpectedly resonated with either of you?
LR: I never thought this movie would be so emotional for people. I hoped people would think about the subjects, but many people also cried a lot. Another thing we’re very happy about is, in each scene there would be some detail — the name of a street, a feature behind the actors, a photo or a line — and people always catch it. When you start a movie in 2012, sometimes you want to fit so many subjects it’s impossible. And for us, we snuck in other elements and it was a surprise that people caught it and were emotional by the end of the movie.
SR: I know part of it is that you didn’t know how much the film would resonate given the past year we’ve had. How has that been changing how you think about it?
AM: I want to make another movie. [Laughs] If possible because, you know, this was an exercise to talk about things we didn’t want to happen. But then things happened and the movie became older. But, I think this movie is a kind of document about the last eight years, when the movie started. If I were to shoot this again, I would change many things, maybe. Or maybe it’s possible to make a continuation.
Executive Order premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
Header image courtesy of Lereby Produções and Lata Filmes