How do you write a review of a movie that you have minimal cultural foundation to review? That’s how I feel right now, trying to write a review of the Brazilian short film “Kbela.” The film tackles the sensitive subjects of black beauty and natural hair through a 20-minute collage of striking scenes that have minimal dialogue.
I’m a black woman. But I’m a black American woman. And my experiences with natural hair, self-valorization and beauty are totally different from an Afro-Brazilian woman. More than 50% of Brazilians are descendants of Africans who were enslaved over the course of three centuries. Despite this significant population, black people are not represented in mainstream media. They aren’t on TV in large numbers. They aren’t on the cover of mainstream magazines. In fact, most of the women who are visible in media, look like they were born in Europe. And when mainstream media does include black women, they are almost always portrayed as housekeepers and “loose” women. So the feelings I experienced watching this film are different than an Afro-Brazilian woman who rarely sees people who look like her on a large screen.
The word “Kbela” is a mashup of the words “cabelo” and “beleza,” which mean hair and beauty in Portuguese, respectively. Kbela, with a K, first popped up in a short personal story by Yasman Thayná called Mc K-bela. In the story, Thayná, 22, recounts the moment when two friends helped her to cut her relaxed hair off. Her friend took some school scissors, and cut off her hair while singing a song in Yoruba. After this moment, Thayná looked into a mirror for the first time in years. Thayná sees herself as a black woman, but that wasn’t always the case. She has very light skin, and a fine nose, characteristics normally associated with white people. But she has the kinky hair of a black person. She admitted in an interview that when she was growing up, she was confused. These days she wears her hair in a boxed, freestyled Afro. Her hair is so striking that a young kid once yelled, “MC Cabelo,” at a school where she taught film. This verbal appreciation of her hair stayed with her – MC Cabelo became Mc K-bela, which became Kbela, the name of the film.
The process of creating and producing “Kbela” was one driven by community process. The director put out a simple call on social media for black women to appear in a filmed dramatic reading of the original short story of Mc K-bela. So many people wanted to be in the film, that Thayná decided to make a short film.
To prepare myself for the film, I watched every documentary or short film I could find about hair and black women. “Good Hair” gave us a comedic, and visually vibrant take on hair. “My Nappy Roots,” another documentary, took us through the history and culture of black hair. “Kicking it with the Kinks” follows the natural journey of a black British woman.
“Kbela” is different from these films about hair because it’s not a documentary. It’s not even a true narrative film, but it does tell a story. Through a series of scenes, it shows the negative emotions that Afro-Brazilian women feel when they don’t accept their natural beauty and the joy they experience when they do. That is why “Kbela” is a breakthrough film about the subjects of hair and beauty–it’s a visual poem.
One of the opening scenes shows the head of a woman sitting on a kitchen table while an older woman applies grease, olive oil, wax and whatever she can get her hands on, to the hair on the head. As the older woman continues to apply these ingredients, the woman whose head she’s working on, visually seeps into depression. Another scene shows a dark-skinned woman rubbing white paint to her entire body gradually. Through a post-production process, this scene reverses itself and she is rubbing away the white paint from her black body.
The longest scene mimics Thayná’s personal experience with having her hair cut off, but it doesn’t include her. It’s the most powerful scene, especially if you understand the Yoruba song that the woman is singing. At this moment, the rest of the images in the film become joyous, except for a misplaced scene in which a woman cleans a pot with her hair.
In addition to including women of all different colors and hair textures, the cast also includes a black transgender woman. They are never represented in Brazilian film.
The film also pays special attention to the score. Live music was recorded to match the scenes perfectly, which makes the imagery even more powerful.
I do wonder if only a specific type of Afro-Brazilian woman can appreciate this film. Thayná is part of a new generation of educated young black women who don’t fit the stereotype of black Brazilian women (uneducated women who work as maids or oversexed women). Very few of the scenes in “Kbela” are obvious to the viewer so I wonder if a poorer uneducated black woman would understand or enjoy the film. Even I had to watch the film again to better understand it.
Watch a trailer below: