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Here’s an Idea, Hollywood: How About Treating Latinx Characters Like People Instead of Like an “Issue?”

image: screencap/Paramount A scene from the trailer for "Annihilation" starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac

Latinx make up 18% of the U.S. population and 23% of frequent moviegoers (going at least once a month). But only about 3% of speaking characters in films during the last decade were Latinx. As we move into this year’s Oscar season, Latinx will, once again, be one of the most underserved and underrepresented ethnic groups in film.

The New York Times reported on a study out of USC’s Annenberg School yesterday that reported data on this, and other disturbing trends in film over the last decade. Actually, the Times wasn’t reporting on the study, but rather, was using the study to illuminate the fact that even as we’ve had #OscarsSoWhite, and made some headway in the arena of black representation (13.6% of speaking characters in 2016 were black, while African-Americans make up 13.3% of the U.S. population) and Asian representation in film (Asian representation in film matches their percentage of the U.S. population: 5.7%), the Hispanic/Latinx community continues to be not only underrepresented, but underrepresented by a lot.

Now, this has purely to do with numbers, not the quality of representation. After all, the Asian number could be even bigger, were it not for the whitewashing of Asian characters, and representation would be better overall if so many of those speaking roles didn’t adhere to racial and ethnic stereotypes. Still, we can’t talk about quality without first addressing quantity, and right now, Hispanics/Latinx are practically erased.

This is my Puerto Rican Queen, Gina Rodriguez talking about the fact that Latinx “make 55 million plus in the country. No big deal. You should throw us in a movie or two. It would make sense. We do buy one in every four tickets, every single weekend, and make sure that your movies do well.”

Mmmm-hmmm.

Only one Hispanic/Latinx man has ever won the Oscar for Best Actor: José Ferrer, for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1951. We’re still waiting on a Hispanic/Latinx woman to win Best Actress. According to the Times:

The last Hispanic actor to win an Oscar was Penélope Cruz, from Spain, who was honored nine years ago for her supporting role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The last time the Academy Awards had a Hispanic acting nominee was 2012, when Demián Bichir was given a nod for his portrayal of an undocumented Los Angeles gardener in A Better Life, and the Argentina-born French actress Bérénice Bejo was nominated for playing a dancer in The Artist.

It’s interesting to me that of those Oscar winners and nominees, Cruz and Bejo are both European, and Bechir was a Latino nominated for playing an undocumented gardener.

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, is not having this. “We are expecting that we are going to have to go to the Academy Awards this year and demonstrate,” he says. “We’ve tried to push in less hostile ways. But these studios don’t seem to understand anything else.”

What the USC study doesn’t make clear (and is something that needs to be kept in mind when considering Latinx representation) is how many of the actors in certain roles were black or white and also Latinx. Also, they should be clearer about whether or not when they say that a “speaking role” is Latinx, if that means that the character is, or the actor playing the role is. [I’ve reached out to Dr. Smith at Annenberg about this, and will report back with clarification.]

For example, in the photo above for the upcoming film, Annihilation, there are two Latinas in the image: Gina Rodriguez (on the right), who I’ve already said is of Puerto Rican heritage, and Tessa Thompson (center) whose father is Afro-Panamanian and whose mother is white Mexican. Thompson is Latinx on both sides, and yet she’s rarely presented as a Latinx performer, nor has she (to my knowledge, please correct me) ever played a Latinx role.

So anything that Thompson is in has a Latina actor in it…but if she’s not explicitly playing a Latina character, does that count?

  • Is she playing a Latina in Annihilation? If not, what’s different about the way Rodriguez’s character is written that makes her “explicitly” Latina in any way other than that Rodriguez “looks” like Hollywood’s version of Latina and has a Latinx-sounding name.
  • What does “playing a Latina” mean?
  • And when talking about representation, are we counting Latinx roles, even when they’re not played by Latinx actors (which is the case far too often)?

These are questions that I’m not sure anyone in Hollywood is giving any thought.

Something about the New York Times piece really struck a nerve with me, and it relates to the overall problem. While Sony talked about producing Miss Bala, which stars Gina Rodriguez as an “empowered Latina protagonist”:

Hollywood’s other major studios declined to comment for this article, though several studio executives privately expressed frustration with the number of inclusion issues they are being asked to immediately address. At the moment, they said, the #MeToo fight against sexual harassment and gender equality has become all-consuming. They are also under pressure from activists working for improved onscreen representation for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Representatives for people with disabilities are also pushing for more respect.

Well, I’m sorry that you’re being asked to hold more than one thought in your heads, Hollywood execs, but human beings are actually quite capable of multitasking. You’re able to juggle millions of dollars and hundreds of employees at a time. Why is this so frustrating?

A part of the problem has to do with the way that Latinx are perceived, as compared to African-Americans or Asians (or Native Americans, which must be lumped in along with Pacific Islanders in the “Other” category in the study). Latinx experiences are generally framed in one of two ways: the immigrant experience, or a criminal existence. Sometimes both at the same time, or one because of the other. But it’s rare that Latinx roles are even written that don’t have those elements associated with them at all.

Latinx are already a marginalized group. Then they are further marginalized by the stories Hollywood chooses to tell about them. After all, how many stories about “the immigrant experience” are they going to make? When it comes to diversity in a cast, Latinx characters are still among the last to be included, even for the “token person of color” roles despite, as I mentioned, being 18% of the population and growing.

So long as Latinx characters are always seen and framed as non-American, as “foreign,” we will never have the representation we want. It isn’t that stories about immigration aren’t important. It’s that the participation of Latinx is limited to this in the wider world of film.

Another part of the problem is that, rather than thinking about inclusion as a problem to be solved, or “numbers” to be gotten to, inclusion should be an ethos. An attitude. A general way of being. It should be the place at which every project starts, not the thing that’s shoehorned in later because you know people are gonna be mad.

So, yes, it might seem overwhelming to Hollywood studio executives, because they’re not used to working their inclusion muscles. But just like with other muscles, the more one uses them, the stronger those muscles get.

Allow your critics to serve as your personal trainers, Hollywood. No pain, no gain.

(image: screenshot/Paramount)
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