‘Executive Order’ Re-Writes the Post-Apocalyptic Genre
I’m always annoyed by the whiteness of the post-apocalyptic genre. Watching these films and shows, we’re supposed to pretend that white folks are the people who’d survive the zombie attacks or nuclear war or whatever. But the truth is that people of color have been living through these catastrophic events and are the ones who actually have the tools to make it.
There is no natural disaster in Executive Order, a new Brazilian film starring Harry Potter/How to Get Away with Murder’s Alfred Enoch, but the world is ending all the same. Centering three Black people and a distinctly Black perspective, the film takes on human-made disaster, effectively eviscerating white power structures and narratives along the way.
It opens in a fictional, near-future Brazil. People here are no longer ‘Black,’ but rather ‘high melanin’ and we’re watching the first person to get reparations for slavery arrive at the bank. She’s a kindly looking grandmother figure. A line of press is set up to capture the moment. The reparations are modest – simple debt forgiveness – but apparently significant enough that even though a law has passed allowing women like her to qualify, the bank locks her out.
Soon, we’re spinning in the backlash. Instead of debt forgiveness, the government offers all Black people a one-way ticket to Africa. It’s their “Return Yourself Now” program and while it begins as voluntary, the white government officials quickly make it mandatory, grabbing ‘melanized’ people off the street, invading workplaces (even operating rooms), and separating families if one is deemed Black and another not.
Before you say “that could never happen,” remember Abraham Lincoln himself toyed with the idea of ‘repatrition’ as a ‘solution’ to slavery. Under President Biden, the US is still incarcerating brown children at the border, stopping them from reuniting them with their families. Brazil’s past and present is no less gruesome. We’re talking about the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas here and modern Brazil has all the racial inequalities we in the States are all too familiar with – police brutality, limited opportunity, health disparities, and the list goes on.
Executive Order’s genius is not in making up this hellscape scenario but rather dramatizing it with real heroes firmly in place. Enoch plays Antonio, a young lawyer happily married to Taís Araújo’s Capitu. Antonio’s cousin Andre, played by Seu Jorge, rounds out our trio as the journalist/activist/trouble-maker. Together and separately, they confront and resist white supremacy in predictable ways – the rousing speech, the viral moment – but also in ways that surprise. The two cousins find a legal loophole in the film’s titular ‘executive order:’ as long as they stay in their home, they cannot be deported. The government, with the help of a vindictive white neighbor, shuts off their water and power, turning away anyone who would offer help. In a visually stunning scene, Andre puts on white face, lathering himself in white cream to sneak into an adjacent apartment for a drink and a shower. This whiteness is ugly and the spectacle of it horrifies. As it falls away, we see Andre’s humanity, his Black humanity to be specific, shining through.
Executive Order succeeds because it centers Black humanity at every turn. There are a few sympathetic non-Black folks – Andre’s girlfriend, a Japanese neighbor, a reporter at the end – but there is no white savior. Instead, the film explores the ‘Karen’ type, the petty white woman who hides her evilness behind a thinly veiled fidelity to rules and order. The face and leader of the ‘Return Yourself Now’ program is a white woman in glasses and a bun, giddy at the prospect of forcibly removing ‘high melanized’ citizens. She tenaciously pursues Andre because he stood up to her, teased her even. The other ‘Karen’ is our protagonists’ neighbor. She wants her daughter to have their apartment and doesn’t like having to share space, on equal footing no less, with Black folks. So like all the Karens before, she uses her limited power to terrorize them.
Executive Order isn’t interested in Black terror though. It’s about Black family, joy, and strength. There’s plenty of humor along the way. The ending (spoilers coming) is particularly satisfying – Capitu goes to rescue Antonio from the apartment where he is now alone after Andre’s murder (the whiteface adventure ended in death-by-police). Antonio is in a poor state, dehydrated and hungry, having gone without the insulin he needs for far too long. But when the President shows up to see the ‘last Black man’ leave Brazil, Antonio punches him square in the face. Not to be outdone, Capitu does the same to the woman who runs the deportation program and soon the couple is escaping, not to Africa but rather to reclaim the country that is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s. It’s highly satisfying.
From start to finish, Executive Order depicts a real doomsday scenario, the ruthless, state-sanctioned violence against Black communities, highlighting how oppressed folks have long had to develop survival skills. Separated from Antonio and Andre early on in the film, Capitu escapes on her own. She saves a Black mother and her daughter and the three of them find a cell of other Black folks. The group of them are hiding amid the remnants of the now banned Carnival, in old slave tunnels, no less. Together, they build a new, multigenerational community with collective decision making, grit, and a bit of hope. They are perhaps imperfect – they kill a white man who sneaks into their midst to visit his Black lover – but it matters not. For they are surviving the white devils and their attempted apocalypse.
Taken together, this reimagining of the genre makes Executive Order a powerful and surprisingly fun watch, challenging viewers to re-think the post-apocalyptic format and our hero-making narratives as a whole. I hope more movies follow its lead, flipping the script on a genre that for too long has reinforced racism rather than undercut it.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. A rehabilitated English major, she’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Her words can be found in Glamour, Latino Rebels, Remezcla, Shondaland, and lost grocery lists. Finally and most importantly, her abuelita made the best tamales this world has ever seen. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @cescobarandrade.