Op Ed by Dennis Romero
Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2017 —
When black performers were excluded from all acting categories at the Academy Awards for a second year in a row in 2016, the shutout sparked a second year of an impassioned social-media movement: #OscarsSoWhite. You could say the campaign was a success. A week later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pledged to phase out senior members and enlist new, diverse voters who would, if all recruiting goals were met, double minority membership by 2020. This morning, for the first time, three black actors were nominated in the same category, best supporting actress: Viola Davis for “Fences,” Naomie Harris for “Moonlight,” and Octavia Spencer for “Hidden Figures.” Denzel Washington was also nominated in the lead actor category for his performance in “Fences,” and Mahershala Ali in the supporting actor category for “Moonlight.”
But Hollywood’s diversity problem isn’t solved. By many measures, it’s still as bad as ever. And the studios’ biggest minority deficit by far involves the very people living and working outside their walls in virtually every direction — Latinos.
There were no egregious snubs for Latinos — as expected, Lin-Manuel Miranda got a nod for original song for “Moana” — but that’s only because there were so very few roles for us to begin with. Though the Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Oscar for best director in 2015 and 2016, and his countryman Alfonso Cuarón took home the same award in 2014, the two directors are elite aberrations.
In a report published last year, USC found that Latinos got only 5% of speaking roles in the top-grossing 100 films released in 2015. The glaring absence extends to television. UCLA’s 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report found that Latinos were the most underrepresented group in TV for the second year in a row.
The previous year, UCLA’s annual report found that Latinos got only 2% of the roles in scripted broadcast TV, while Asians got 4% and black characters were “overrepresented.” According to the report’s longtime author, Darnell Hunt, Hollywood has actually been losing ground with minorities because the Latino population’s growth is outpacing the industry’s reluctant attempts to diversify.
Even when rare lead roles are scripted for Latino characters, they are often filled by non-Latino actors. Ben Affleck played the Mexican American CIA operative Antonio “Tony” Mendez in the 2012 film “Argo,” and Jon Favreau played the Cuban entrepreneur behind the “El Jefe” food truck in his 2014 film “Chef.” More recently, the British actor Charlie Hunnam, best known for his role in TV’s “Sons of Anarchy,” was criticized for taking the role of a Mexican American narco-boss in the upcoming feature “American Drug Lord.”
The dearth of Latino storytelling and overlooking of Latino talent is especially remarkable when you consider that about 3 out of 4 people in Los Angeles County are minorities, and about half of them are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Latinos surpassed whites as the largest ethnic or racial group in California in 2015, and we make up nearly 1 out of 5 Americans. We also accounted for almost 1 out of every 4 tickets purchased by frequent moviegoers in 2015, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. In the same year, more Latinos headed to theaters regularly than African Americans and Asians combined.
For these reasons, the African American activist Najee Ali is bringing back the boycott this year, but with a focus on Latinos. In a telephone interview, he called the industry’s snubbing of Latinos “disturbing.” In another interview, Alex Nogales, chief executive of the National Hispanic Media Coalition and a longtime advocate for diversity in film and TV, told me that his group will be joining criticism of the Academy.
“Yes, they’ve done better with African Americans,” he said, “but diversity is about more than just one group. We’re being ignored.”
Nogales was echoing a sentiment expressed by the actor America Ferrera in a column for Deadline last year. “At a certain point, it becomes unavoidable to notice that we’re being ignored,” Ferrera said. In a scathing piece for the Hollywood Reporter in 2014, Chris Rock argued that the industry sees Latinos only as a service class. “Forget whether Hollywood is black enough,” Rock wrote. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A., you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”
Elyce Helford, director of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Middle Tennessee State University, has argued that Hollywood’s Jewish founders established a lily-white vision of America because they feared anti-Semitism and wanted to stave off any suspicions or accusations that their values were un-American. A similar fear has led some of Hollywood’s most celebrated Latino talents, including Rita Hayworth, to adopt professional names that belie their south-of-the-border heritage.
This year brings an added concern — that an industry that has long portrayed Latinos as banditos, gangsters, and busboys will serve to fuel the racism and hatred generated by a divisive election in which the winning candidate attempted to brand Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. If there’s hope that Latinos will ever been seen as three-dimensional, assimilated, and American, it can be found just outside the studio gates.
Dennis Romero is a staff writer for the L.A. Weekly.