It's obviously excessive to suggest that everything we need to know about concepts like racism, sexism and homophobia lies within Helena Solberg's provocative, affectionate and intelligent documentary, "Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business." But not by much.
For Brazilian Solberg, who is just old enough to remember Miranda's 1955 funeral, is really interested in cultural stereotyping and to what extent her turban-topped countrywoman became imprisoned by the same image that made her an icon of Hollywood musicals in the 1940s.
Somewhere in Solberg's intriguing 91-minute melange of film clips, interviews and re-created scenes from Miranda's life lie questions that have teased philosophers and anthropologists through the ages: How much do we determine how others view us? What is native culture and how do foreigners deal with it? If artful compromise is the essence of existence, how much of ourselves can we surrender without sacrificing the essentials of who we are?
If such concepts seem a bit weighty for the legacy of the tico-tico dancer with a mouthful of malaprops and a hatful of bananas, that's a measure of how little we really know about Miranda and how much Solberg has to tell us.
For example, though she was known as "the Brazilian bombshell" and came to embody the United States' patronizing wartime image of all of Latin America -- diminutive, entertaining but not exactly serious -- Miranda was in fact born in Portugal and carried a Portuguese passport all her life. Her family immigrated to Brazil in 1910 shortly after she was born, just in time for her to grow up in the heyday of Latin American cultural chic. Tangos were the rage of Paris, and sambas and rumbas were on the way when Manhattan impresario Lee Shubert spotted Carmen in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub in 1939 and shipped her north for a sensational stint on Broadway. That would segue into more than a decade in Hollywood where she bloomed as the excitable, undulating Latin charmer of more than a dozen wackily plotless musicals.
Most memorable among them was Busby Berkeley's hallucinogenic "The Gang's All Here" (1943), unearthed for countless happily stoned filmgoers in the 1960s and '70s, with its hilariously Freudian dance sequence featuring chorus girls and giant bananas and Miranda singing "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat."
But Solberg makes clear that Miranda was much more than a Latina bimbo. She was a canny negotiator whose skills made her the highest-paid woman in America in 1945, and a savvy diplomat who eagerly shouldered the World War II task of ingratiating herself with the United States on behalf of all its vaguely perceived, culturally distant neighbors to the south.
More important to Solberg as a Brazilian, Miranda was her country's first real national and international star, the first to turn Brazil's face away from Europe to the multiracial riches of its homegrown culture. By adopting the turban and music of Bahia, Brazil's black northeast, she not only brought the country's native arts to a global audience but stamped them with an elan that they wear to this day. In the North American mind, Brazilian culture would not move beyond Miranda until the bossa-nova boom of the 1960s.
But there was a dark side to all this. Studio heads who loved Miranda as a fruit-topped novelty in the 1940s tired of her in the 1950s and never let her move beyond her campy wartime image to singing or acting roles that would capitalize on her intelligence. And she seems to have been at least a partial conspirator in her own trivialization -- and that of the Latin America she represented. As she explains in the film, "Bananas is my business." An abusive marriage only made things worse, and she spiraled through a series of depressions and pills until her untimely death of a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 46.
There are some odd lapses in "Bananas Is My Business." Though Solberg shows a few film clips to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the Carmen Miranda image during and after the war, she somehow ignores the Pan-American panache of her most famous commercial spinoff, Chiquita Banana. She also ignores or overlooks the extent to which Miranda's one-dimensional image was typical of American media personalities at the time -- a product of the same vaudeville shtick mentality that would make Bette Davis a perpetual bad girl, Richard Widmark an eternal bad guy and entomb Boris Karloff in monster movies for most of his career. If Miranda was a caricature of her real self on film, so in those days was almost everyone else.
But for the most part, "Bananas" is a treasure house of fascinating reporting. Solberg finds relatives of Miranda in Portugal and Rio, friends in New York and Hollywood. We hear from everyone from actress Alice Faye and composer-guitarist Laurendo Almeida to a 90-year-old Brazilian rowing champion who apparently was Miranda's first lover. "Never forget the sublime 20th of April at 5 in the afternoon, the most divine afternoon of my youth," she wrote him. "I will never forget this day . . . how good it was."
In puzzling out Miranda's life, Solberg commendably searches more for understanding than for villains. And she leaves us pondering the question of how much we can blame anyone but ourselves for the image the world takes away from whomever we are.
Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, at the Biograph Theatre, is not rated. CAPTION: Carmen Miranda, in a signature turban, and Edward Everett Horton in Busby Berkeley's wartime musical "The Gang's All Here."