CHICAGO — Unbelievably, the entertainment industry’s dearth of ethnic diversity and surplus of stereotypical Latino portrayals have devolved into something unsettling. We’ve gone from seeing poor representation in films and TV shows to wanting that diverse characters be played by people of the same ethnicity.
My recent compulsion to do a name check on Hispanic characters and their actors did not, as it did for so many others, start with the “Argo” controversy. I have no doubt the Academy Award-winning movie would have never made it onto the screen without Ben Affleck’s Hollywood clout, and that alone made it seem like a fine trade-off that Affleck played CIA officer Tony Mendez.
Then it came out that the real Tony Mendez, on whom the “Argo” hero was based, doesn’t identify himself as Hispanic because his family has been in the U.S. so long that he considers himself just a regular all-American guy.
Unlike those who were bewildered that Mendez doesn’t see himself on their terms, I don’t believe we should allow a knee-jerk ethnic pride mindset to snub those who identify themselves as Americans first and foremost. That would be tantamount to expecting Affleck to take only roles reflecting his Scottish ancestry.
But look at the case of “Olympus Has Fallen,” an action movie about a White House terrorist attack, in which the vice president, Charlie Rodriguez, is played by the Caucasian actor Phil Austin. When reached by an NBC Latino reporter, Austin said, “I’m straight up Caucasian and there was no attempt to play any sort of ethnic spin. The script did say Charlie or Charles Rodriguez, but the fact I wasn’t Hispanic was never discussed or brought up on set.”
That kind of stings.
Hispanics, by virtue of their underdog status resulting from years of being painted as criminal immigrants by right-wing nativists, have become big-time parity scolds. Whereas not too long ago few complained about being absent in popular culture, today every little factual or fictional “first” is celebrated well out of its deserved proportion.
The first “Hispanic vice president in a movie” is seen by some as no less important a precursor to such a historic moment in real life than Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert making the American public comfortable with the idea of a black president.
Worse than simply telegraphing laziness at getting casting choices right, such Hollywood oversights show a fundamental disregard for both Hispanic audiences — the Motion Picture Association of America recently reported that Hispanics currently buy a quarter of all tickets sold in the U.S., continuing a strong upward trend — and for the pool of talented Hispanic actors trying to find work.
Here’s another one for you: In the recent movie “Parker,” Jennifer Lopez played Leslie Rogers straight — no hints of ethnicity, which I thought was great. However, her movie mother, Ascension, who seemed very Latina, was played by Patti LuPone. That confused me, too.
The miscasting phenomenon isn’t limited to movies, of course. A few weeks ago, I settled on my sofa to finally treat myself to the new Kevin Spacey made-for-Netflix show “House of Cards.” I loved it right away and even liked the fact that the creators of the show decided to make the president’s White House chief of staff a Latina named Linda Vasquez.
But at the beginning of the second episode, I scanned the opening credits for the name of the actress so I could look up her bio and came up empty. It wasn’t until I saw the character and actress’s name in the closing credits that I realized that she is, in fact, the Indian-American Sakina Jaffrey.
She plays the role beautifully, so don’t get me wrong here. But it seems unbelievable — unfathomable, really — that of all the Hispanic actresses out there, not a single one was up to the task of earning a role on “House of Cards.” It’s far more likely that when it came to casting, it just wasn’t anyone’s priority to ensure that enough high-quality Hispanic actors were given a shot at the role.
When will Hollywood finally wake up? Writing in Hispanic characters and casting them may be a challenge. But it’s one that could be overcome with just a modicum of respect and consideration for a quarter of the total movie audience and about 48 million Hispanic television viewers.