Léa Garcia, Who Raised Black Actors’ Profile in Brazil, Dies at 90

Léa Garcia, a pioneering actress who brought new visibility and respect to black actors in Brazil after her breakthrough role in the Academy Award-winning 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” died on August 15 in Gramado, a mountain resort in southern Brazil. She was 90.

Her death due to heart complications was confirmed to her by her family Instagram account. At the time of her death, in a hospital, she was in Gramado to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at that city’s film festival. Her son Marcelo Garcia, who was also her manager, accepted the offer the honor in place.

During a prolific career that began in the 1950s, Ms. Garcia amassed more than 100 credits in theatre, film and television, from her early years with an experimental black theater troupe to her later fame in television productions, such as the popular 1976 telenovela ‘Escrava Isaura ” (“Isaura: slave girl”), based on an 1865 novel by the abolitionist writer Bernardo Guimarães; it was seen in over 80 countries.

Ms. Garcia talked about her career in a 2022 interview with Brazilian magazine Ela and said she felt blessed by her success. “I often say that the gods embraced me,” she said. “Things were always coming at me without me having to run after them.”

Still, striving to change racial perceptions in the world of film and television required tremendous perseverance and discipline. “Much more was asked of us,” she told Ela. “We had to arrive with the text on the tip of our tongue, always smelling nice and elegant. Others may be wrong. We could not. We could play submissive characters, but we had to show that we weren’t.”

Léa Lucas Garcia de Aguiar was born on March 11, 1933 in Rio de Janeiro. Growing up, she was drawn to literature and aspired to become a writer. That changed one day in 1950.

“I was on my way to pick up my grandmother to take her to the movies,” she recalls, “when someone came up to me and asked, ‘Do you want to work in theatre?’”

The voice belonged to Abbey of Nascimentothe writer, artist and Pan-African activist who created Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), a Rio-based group that aimed to promote the appreciation of Afro-Brazilian culture. (The two would become a couple and have two children together.) Mrs. Garcia made her stage debut in 1952 in Mr. Nascimento’s play “Rapsódia Negra” (“Black Rhapsody”).

As the decade drew to a close, she took her career to a new level of international recognition when she was cast in French director Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus,” a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, adapted to the frenzy of Rio’s carnival and with music by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. It won the Oscar for it best foreign language film in 1960.

With its lavish exuberance, the film was anything but classic in character. “It’s really not the two lovers that are at the center of this movie; it’s the music, the movement, the storm of color,” Bosley Crowther wrote in a judgement in the New York Times.

Even in a supporting role, Ms. Garcia showed the ability to seduce. “Lea Garcia,” wrote Mr. Crowther, “is especially provocative as the dissolute cousin of gentle Eurydice.”

One of her other notable films was “Ganga Zumba,” the feature debut of Carlos Diegues, a pioneer in the Brazilian reformist Cinema Novo movement, made in 1963 but not released until 1972. She brought strength and complexity to the character of Cipriana, the title character’s lover, who escapes a sugar plantation in the 17th century to run Quilombo dos Palmares, a refuge for other refugees from slavery.

“It’s not shameful to be a slave,” Ms. Garcia often said, according to relatives. “It’s a shame to be a colonizer.”

The pace of her career barely slowed down over the years; for decades she was a staple of Brazilian soap operas like ‘O Clone’ (‘The Clone’), ‘Anjo Mau’ (‘Evil Angel’), ‘Xica da Silva’ and ‘Marina’, and appeared in other TV shows series too.

Even into her eighties, Mrs. Garcia remained productive. She starred in the drama series ‘Baile de Máscaras’ in 2019 and returned to the stage in 2022 in the play ‘A Vida Não é Justa’ (‘Life is not fair’), playing three characters and exploring themes such as diversity . , equality, justice and relationships.

Full information on her survivors was not immediately available.

In the Ela interview, Ms. Garcia discussed her hopes for her great-great-granddaughter, who was 7 months old at the time. “I hope for a fair and egalitarian country that respects diversity,” she said. “That’s what I want, and more.”

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