Mr. Burns using outdated phrenology (race "science") next to Smithers. S7 Ep8. Image: Disney+

‘Alina of Cuba’ Using ‘Race Science’ To Excuse Casting James Franco as Fidel Castro Is … A (BAD) Choice

This man really talked about the digital equivalent of craniometers.

The first week of August is proving to be one of the most chaotic weeks in entertainment in weeks, if not months. Around the time the disturbing Warner Bros. Discovery Q2 investor call finished up on August 4, Deadline broke the news that James Franco would be playing historical figure Fidel Castro in upcoming indie film Alina of Cuba. There lots of issues people take with his casting.

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His sexual abuse allegations from at least nine women (one underage, and a handful of students while he was teaching) and his admission about some of them have made him a Hollywood pariah since about 2017. Even his longtime creative partner Seth Rogan distanced himself after mutual frequent collaborator Charlyne Yi called out how people continue to gaslight them and protect predators. With Franco working behind the scenes on many projects (because he certainly was “canceled”) and pandemic delays, it was only a matter of time until he returned for a major role.

What should have been a discussion focused on the other leads of Alina of Cuba (because it doesn’t appear that he is even a lead) turned into weird excuses as to why those involved in the production cast him to begin with, especially considering Fidel Castro is one of the most recognizable and influential people in recent Latin American history. In addition to casting a known predator, this comes at a time when Hollywood is sluggish to cast Latinx performers unless the roles are tropes.

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Creative producer John Martinez O’Felan waxed to Deadline about how much work was put into finding someone that looked exactly like Castro and in this, he talked in uncomfortable detail about the facial structure of Castro and Franco. So much it teetered into 1840s phrenology and “race science.”

To get there on such a tough look to cast, we used Fidel Castro’s ancient Galician heraldry as our focal compass, and then combed through the entire ranks of actors with Latin roots in Hollywood to find someone who has a similar facial structure. In executing a close search into our hopefuls through the eye of Spanish and Portuguese genealogy which the Galicians held, we found that James, by far, had the closest facial likeness of our Industry’s leading actors, meaning that the focus would be to build out his character accent and we’d have a stunning on-screen match to intrigue audiences and bring the story to life with true visual integrity.

To address the elephant in the room, technically, by many measures, Fidel Castro was (like Franco) racially white due to both parents being from Spain and Spain being part of Europe. Franco’s family comes from a few places within Europe, and it could end there. Beyond parents and maybe grandparents, 23 and Me is not helpful. Regardless, this bizarre conversation seemed like a preemptive way for the production team to excuse hiring a non-Hispanic white man the role of a white Latino. It’s better than Josh Boone’s racist excuses in his New Mutants casting, but not much. White actors are consistently given practically any role (even ones way more problematic than this), but people of color are given a very limited scope.

In a historical setting, people of color are given very little wiggle room without think pieces about the fall of “historically accurate” casting. This film is already going to be controversial because of the fact that it’s about Fidel Castro’s daughter (Alina Fernández, played by Ana Villafañe), who has had a very public life speaking out against communism and her father since she secretly left the country in the 1990s. The premise alone has all the hallmarks of Oscar bait, and it really didn’t need Franco or the excuses of phrenology to make the situation messier.

(via Deadline, featured image: Disney+)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.