Monday, December 10, 2012

Ben Affleck Addresses "Argo" Casting Controversy Within Latino Community

[There has been controversy over the film Argo and its choice to have lead character Antonio "Tony" Méndez played by Academy Award-winning actor-writer-director Ben Affleck, who also directed the film. Read below to see what Affleck had to say about the issue at a recent screening of the film in New York City. For those who may not know about the controversy, click here.]

Guest Blogger: María Nieto

At a recent industry screening of Argo, I asked the film’s director and lead actor, Ben Affleck, and screenwriter, Chris Terrio, the following question during the screening’s Q&A portion: “As a Latina writer, I’ve been following some of the issues that have been raised around your playing Tony Mendez and I’m wondering if… in the conversations between yourself and Chris-- and Tony Mendez himself-- was the ethnicity of the character essential to the role?” Affleck candidly responded as follows: “That’s a good question. You know, I obviously went to Tony and sought his approval…was the first thing. And Tony does not have, I don’t know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really, and… you know you wouldn’t necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go ‘This guy’s Latino.’ So I didn’t feel as though I was violating some thing, where, here’s this guy who’s clearly ethnic in some way and it’s sort of being whitewashed by Ben Affleck the actor. I felt very comfortable that if Tony was cool with it, I was cool with it.” Chris Terrio then added, “He’s fourth generation. Which was another interesting thing for me... to say that there are Latinos in this country… who... he was here long before my family was, certainly, being Italian-American and Irish-American. It’s funny that, at least in my mind, you hear the name Mendez and you think New American… at least I do living in New York. But, in fact, Tony has American creds that go much deeper into American history than I do.”

Affleck further added that “it raises interesting casting points I haven’t heard, I don’t think, enough [of] but the question is… ‘What makes an American?’ question, the ‘How do you cast people... a guy... who, as you [Terrio] say his family’s been in this country for a long long time?’ It raises issues of assimilation, and ‘What are our goals?’, ‘What are we shooting for?’ and ‘What sort of integrity do we have to have with playing parts that are of other ethnicities?’ Obviously, there are ways where it’s obvious it can be ridiculous, but that’s not what we’re talking about … but actually I don’t think you have to be Croatian to play Croatian. I think the most important thing... the two most important things... about this issue are: 1. We do have to maintain a strong presence of Latino roles, African American roles in our national culture of drama and 2. that those parts don’t become... minimized or indeed marginalized... And, I think those stories are interesting and need to be told. And for me I was like, as an actor, Ben Affleck, I just wanted to play the part so much, because it’s such a great part.” Affleck ended his response on a humorous note adding, “And I was sleeping with the director,  so...”, which was greeted with a round of laughter. After the screening ended, I had a chance to speak briefly with Affleck and thanked him for addressing the issue that was so important to the Latino community. He replied that he was happy to do so and that, in accusations of whitewashing ethnic characters, he would hate to be accused of something which he is so adamantly against.

Whether you agree with them or not, Affleck and Terrio’s responses offer a true insight into the ways that “Latino” is viewed by those outside of our Latino community. For me, the most interesting and unexpected aspect to their conversation was that of Mendez’s American nationality and the way in which that seems– at least for them– to be a different and separate issue from his Latino heritage. Affleck’s reference to not having to be Croatian to play Croatian seems to make the case for nationality vs. race vs. ethnicity. It is a triple issue that is particularly meaningful for Latinos given that we are not of any one race, but rather of an “ethnic origin” that can– and does– belong to any number of nationalities... including American. Further, given Mendez’s long roots in this country it would seem to make him more “American” and, possibly, less truly Latino than some New Americans, in their eyes.  What seems to be implied here is that in being such a true American, one with very far-off, distant roots to his Latino heritage, he is able to be played by any other American– so long as he had not retained any particular ethnic accent and/or a specifically “Latino Look.” It seems to be understood that if he had retained some aspect of ethnicity either in physical bearing or in a spoken accent, then that would definitely be understood to be a “whitewashing” and would be deemed both ridiculous and contemptible. I am not sure where that distinction of nationality came into the conversation of appropriate casting but it seems one tailor-made for the Latino issue. It can therefore be reasonably deduced that for African Americans, Asian Americans and certain others their “ethnicity” will always hold up under scrutiny– despite their American nationality or the number of generations that their families have been in this country– and thus be respected.  The same does not appear to be true for Latinos or, it would seem, Croatians.

And it is here that we come to the sticky part of the question, the question that lays bare the responsibility that we as a community have failed to adequately examine and explain– even amongst ourselves. And that question is “What is a Latino?”  How do WE define when and how our ethnicity, race, nationality overlap with our Latino heritage? What is an ethnically “Latino Look?” And, for those light-skinned Latinos with no discernible accent who would not be known as Latinos were it not for their Spanish last names, are those roles “up for grabs?” Further, what is our responsibility– as self-identifying Latinos– to ask, and demand if necessary, that Latino roles preferably be played by Latino actors?
 Further, we must also keep in mind that in asking that Latinos be played by Latino actors we wield a double-edged sword. If we are saying that in those instances where a non-Latino could physically bear a similar enough resemblance to play the Latino role but yet should not be cast, then we could also face the inverse of that request. Can then a Caucasian person also ask that only a culturally Caucasian actor play their roles as well?If an actor’s job is to embody the spirit of a role, what are we saying about their ability to bring to a life roles outside their own culture or personal experience? Further, if Zoë Saldaña were darker skinned should she still have been denied the role of Nina Simone for the fact that she is a Latina and not culturally African American? These are neither simple nor easy questions to address. But address them we must. The issues and answers are already being discussed and arrived at without our participation and it is my guess, based on past and current experience, that we will not like the outcome.

In this particular instance, I will echo what I first stated on social media when this issue first came up– the moment that Tony Mendez gave his blessing to Ben Affleck to play him in the movie, we as a Latino community were left out of the conversation. I cannot blame Mr. Affleck for walking through a door that Mr. Mendez left wide open. As a savvy director and actor, he would have been a fool not to do so. It seems obvious to me that Mr. Mendez does not self-identify as a Latino or does not do so to the extent that he would have a problem with a non-Latino playing him in a movie.  That, coupled with the fact that Mendez has neither an accent nor a typically “Latino Look” made it possible for Ben Affleck to embody the role without any moral qualms.

I believe Affleck’s sincerity when he states that he is against the whitewashing of any ethnic character. I also believe that we as a community have not given the entertainment community at large nor the casting community in particular any tangible guidelines on which to base their decisions.  We have not answered these questions amongst ourselves and in doing so we have allowed the answers come from outside our community. The time is long overdue for us to ask the sticky questions and to arrive at the desired solutions on our own behalf– whether or not they are agreed upon 100%. And, most importantly, when we do arrive at a consensus, however imperfect, we must then hold the line and refuse to bow down to pressure. If we do not create our reality, it will be created for us, and it is my belief that when they do - we will not recognize ourselves in the mirror.

María Nieto is a Colombian-American writer and multi-platform producer (film-web-television-theater-live event) who is passionate about creating opportunities for Latino entertainment. For more information, click here.


Unknown said...

This argument is flawed in that if you're a "Latino" actor, you are NEVER cast in a Caucasian role by the Hollywood establishment -- with Extremely rare exception (I can only think of one actor: Andy Garcia)... Then again, Affleck bankrolled his film... If Latinos did the same, they could play whatever they wanted as well.

Bones Rodriguez said...

Felix said all that needs to be said.

agehamil said...

In regards to the comment: "This argument is flawed in that if you're a "Latino" actor, you are NEVER cast in a Caucasian role by the Hollywood establishment -- with Extremely rare exception (I can only think of one actor: Andy Garcia)..."

What about Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Charlie Sheen? All three are Latino actors who have been playing "white" roles most of their careers. Some Latinos are Caucasians. "White of Hispanic Origin" is how we are often classified. I thought this article was extremely well-written and appreciate the way in which the author expressed her question to Ben Affleck and then respected and tried to truly understand his response. Bottom line - this film was Affleck's "baby" - he made it happen - he wanted the awesome role of playing Mr. Mendez because what Mr. Mendez DID in real life was amazing. Like the author said, as long as Tony Mendez was cool with Affleck playing him, there was no reason for Affleck to look for anyone else to play this role. And he did a fantastic job - it was a fantastic film and because of this film, I and many other movie goers are now aware of Mr. Mendez's courageous deeds and we can be proud of him being a member of the Latino community.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, it boils down to flavor. You wouldn't cast an Irish actor to play an Italian mafioso, because they usually lack the flavor of the character.

As far as I've noticed, whenever a character is Eastern-European, such as Croatian, an Eastern-European actor is cast or one who can believably pass for one and has that flavor.

There are Latinos who pass as African-Americans and have that flavor and so play them all the time. Others, like Rosie Perez, will always be Latina.

I don't feel Ben should have played Tony Mendez, not due to a lack a flavor but due to a lack of balance in the casting of people of color.

I see casting more as a scale that needs balancing. Throughout all of history, Caucasians have had nearly ALL the roles and Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and anyone of color have contributed to their success by paying our money to buy movie tickets, memorabilia etc.

It is only in the last few decades that actors of color are being cast in any leading roles. However, the scales are nowhere near balanced.

Consider the hundreds of years of plays, musicals, vaudeville, Shakespeare. Add to that at least a 150 years of movies and nearly 100 years of television. Now subtract a few decades of mostly negative and stereotypical roles. How balanced does this feel to you?

When a role exists based on an ethnicity that suffers from this imbalance, an actor of that ethnicity should be hired. When a Caucasian role is based on a real individual, the best actor for the role should be hired, simply because...well, just think of Woody Allen in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Need I say more?

When the positive leading roles reflect the population, we will be on the right track. I look forward to that day. In order to get there, we all need to speak up when we feel injustice has been done. The best way, is to boycott the film and demand answers from those responsible.

Thank you for writing this article. I feel Ben Affleck was most likely thinking about himself and his desire to play a great role. One that might even garner some awards. However, next time, he might think twice. In which case, we have taken one step in the right direction.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing your post regarding Ben Affleck and his decision to cast himself as a Latino in ARGO. Despite what he said at the screening, I would imagine it was a business decision by Warners to go with a A-list star, than not to. I've never expected any corporation to take on social issues, and do the right thing, whatever we as a ever changing culture decide what the right thing is. That's just not what they are designed to do. I did hope Latino's in my own community would support other Latino efforts at broadening the Latino cinematic landscape. Sadly, much work needs to be done in that area. When Lionsgate's "Casa de mi Padre" got a art house theatrical release, the film was panned by NALIP'S Louis Moreno Perego even though he had never seen it. Perego saw that "Casa" was directed by a Caucasian director, and that was enough for him to encourage his followers to NOT see the film. Had Perego seen the film, or at least, done due diligence and see who was behind the film, he would have realized that "Casa" was a breakthrough film in that it marked the first Spanish language film to get a Mexican- American co production and a US distribution deal with a major American star, Will Ferrell. The film was produced entirely by Nala films, a Mexican company. The producers were from Mexico, Puerto Rico, with a cast that included a myriad of Latino artists-- Mexican international stars like Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, and the late great Pedro Aramendiz Jr. Other cast members like myself, Efran Ramirez, El Puma, and Genesis Rodriguez, are Latino, and the film employed many people of color behind the lens too. The success of "Casa" was an important first step in changing the mind sets of major studios who never would have previously thought to co produce a FULLY SPANISH LANGUAGE FILM with a Latino country. And yet Mr. Perego-- having never even seen the film-- did his best to sabotage it. And so the question remains, how can we expect the studios to do the right thing, when some of our own alleged Latino advocates refuse to do the same? -- Adrian Martinez

carlitomachete said...

Excellent article, Maria. I'm with you on juuuust about everything except:

"...seems obvious to me that Mr. Mendez does not self-identify as a Latino or does not do so to the extent that he would have a problem with a non-Latino playing him in a movie. That, coupled with the fact that Mendez has neither an accent nor a typically “Latino Look” made it possible for Ben Affleck to embody the role without any moral qualms."

All due respect, you've made assumptions about both men that only they and/or their closest confidants might be privy to.

Mendez being okay with Affleck playing him means ONLY that Mendez was okay with it and one can not know how he self-identifies without straight up asking him. And as for Affleck's moral qualms, again, without knowing him beyond a Q&A sesh and his public appearances/persona, we really can't know what may or may not present him w/ a moral problem. According to him, he just wanted to tell a good story about an interesting character he wanted to play, nothing more.

Not arguing semantics.

To the overall point, however, I find your essay about as well thought-out and argued as any I've seen thus far re: our methods for self-identification and how they're affected by media [and vice versa!].

(I commented on a friend's article in HuffPo yesterday about this very same subject.)

Obviously, we've still got a ways to go. But as we see before us every single day, the times, they are a' changing. The slow-but-steady democratization (read: affordability) of film/video production and distribution (especially in the myriad ways "television" can now be consumed) means that more and more of those from marginalized groups can control how said groups are portrayed.

Make no mistake about it: We create our own mythologies, every single day.

Our challenge will be to find the delicate balance between telling a good story for its own sake while adding to the greater story of our people, whoever we deem those people to be.

Y ya tu sabe... Pa'lante, siempre.

Luis Argueta said...

Ben Affleck's sincerity in his answer is not in question. His insensitivity is.
Moctezuma Esparza, in his article "Ben Affleck's Argo and the White-Washing of the Mexican-American" ( points out how "In the closing credits, the photos of the real people portrayed are presented side-b- side with the actors' photos showing the very close resemblance and care that was taken in the casting process to cast actors who looked like the real people. Yet, for the key role of Tony Mendez, the director/producer Ben Affleck chose a single long shot of Tony with President Carter where his image was not distinct or recognizable, breaking the pattern he had chosen for all the other real people depicted." What, the production department could'nt find a medium-shot photo of Tony Mendez, or did they realize how "Latino" he looked?

Anonymous said...

María Nieto,

I'm sorry to say that while you did put an effort to bring this issue directly to the perpetrator, Ben Affleck, you totally dropped the ball.

This is not a well written piece. It may be well meaning but it does not drive the actual point home at all and you actually treat Ben Affleck well as if he did nothing wrong.

The problems start right away with the question you chose to ask, "Was the ethnicity of the character essential to the role?”

That is an insulting question. It assumes that the only reason a Latino American should play a Latino American is if that Latino character is somehow overtly Latino in whatever arbitrary way privileged white people (i.e. Ben Affleck and George Clooney) deem.

Another failure of that question is that it doesn't whatsoever bring up what the issue is and that is that Latino Americans are flat out denied lead roles in major Hollywood movies. Here is one that was not only a real life person but was the main character of a major Hollywood production and it wasn't even considered to give this big opportunity to a Latino American talent.

Read this article from Racebending, which is a very good article and was actually one of the very first to bring this Argo issue up, where it explicitly points out the incredibly low amount of times percentage wise that Hollywood hires Latinos for lead roles:

As the article notes, the number is almost 0.

It is very clear that people of color are marginalized in Hollywood and with Latinos it is no different. This incident here with Argo is that very kind of case. Ben Affleck is a white man and thus benefits from white privilege. He took the role for himself out of selfishness and took advantage of the social privilege that Latinos do not have. Affleck gets far more opportunities than almost every Latino American actor out there and he still felt the need to push aside Latinos to have this one role. Note that when Ben Affleck first directed a movie he casted his own brother as the lead who is not a box office draw of any kind. Yet when this movie came in his direction it never even occurred to him nor George Clooney (he was a producer on Argo) to give this golden opportunity to a Latino American and possibly launch him to the A-list.

You actually write, "I believe Affleck’s sincerity when he states that he is against the whitewashing of any ethnic character."

How can you possible even come to such a conclusion when Ben Affleck did actually whitewash by denying the role to a Latino American actor, who hardly ever get these kinds of opportunities, and casting himself?

Do you really think that he was ever going to respond with something sinister when you asked him your misguided question? He is promoting his movie which he is currently receiving, sadly, almost universal praise for and getting prizes to boot. He is going to tell you whatever he needs to in order to not make himself look like the bad guy and to silence controversy. This is classic underhanded salesman tactics and you fell for it.

In fact his very words show his discriminatory mindset when he said, "And Tony does not have, I don’t know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really, and… you know you wouldn’t necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go ‘This guy’s Latino."


So "Latinos" are only "Latinos" when they have an accent? How many Latino Americans have foreign accents? None because they are American. Yet this guy is actually talking about Latinos, even if they are American, as if they are foreigners because apparently in his thinking, European = American.

You heard that and it didn't insult you at all?


Anonymous said...

The man's follow up words are then a straight up lie. He's claiming that Antonio Mendez doesn't look Latino? That is hilarious. As many others who have seen the movie have reported, the movie ends with photos of the real people and the actors who played them. Except that when it gets to the real Antonio Mendez, there is no comparison picture with Ben Affleck. There is only a a photo of the real Antonio Mendez. You see, all of the actors supposedly had a strong resemblance to the real people they played... except for Ben Affleck.

Here is the comparison photo with the real Antonio Mendez that Ben Affleck purposely didn't put up in the movie:

A blind man can tell that those two people look nothing alike.

With all of this in mind you actually thanked Ben Affleck and claimed that he "addressed the issue". Ben Affleck did nothing except evade the issue and you let yourself be fooled. Worse, you allowed Ben Affleck's con to frame questions you posed to Latino readers in this article as if Ben Affleck has some kind of a point. These are patronizing questions that were based on his lies and deception like, "“What is a Latino?” How do WE define when and how our ethnicity, race, nationality overlap with our Latino heritage? What is an ethnically “Latino Look?” And, for those light-skinned Latinos with no discernible accent who would not be known as Latinos were it not for their Spanish last names, are those roles “up for grabs?”

Are you kidding me? You fell for his lies so much he even made you think that Antonio Mendez is light skinned whereas that photo from the same era proves otherwise?

And this isn't the only issue this year. Just a couple of months before Argo Warner Brothers released a big movie in the middle of summer: The Dark Knight Rises.

Why do I mention this movie? Well, because the character of Bane, as played by British actor Tom Hardy, is Latino in the original comic books. Matter of fact, when they make animated versions of Batman and feature Bane he usually is voiced by a Hispanic actor even going as far as having Bane actually speak Spanish. However, it seems that Christopher Nolan felt that no Latino was good enough to play the role of Bane so he decided to change Bane's ethnicity just so he can hire a white man to play him. That's two important roles in the same year in big movies that were of Latino characters and neither were given to Latino American actors to play and get a chance for their careers to rise.

Latino Americans are being robbed blind in Hollywood and it is totally due to ignorance of Latino Americans about Hollywood and its discriminatory practices. Maria Nieto, as I have said that while you certainly meant to do well with this you completely dropped the ball and let Ben Affleck get away with it clean. Not only was this bad because Ben Affleck and George Clooney will sleep fine at night but also because your article only serves to disconcert readers about what the issue is and why this production is shameful.

Here is a far better recent article that strikes right at the issue and does not let Ben Affleck get away with it written by Hollywood producer Moctesuma Esparza. Mr. Esparza is a veteran Hollywood producer that very well understands the discrimination that exists in Hollywood.:

Anyone who has read my post please consider all the facts I brought up and do not let Ben Affleck and George Clooney (and even Christopher Nolan) get away with this despite the acclaim they have been receiving. Not only them but for all future movies that continue to deny Latino Americans great lead roles. Latinos have constantly been getting the short end of the stick in Hollywood and there are no signs of Hollywood stopping. As Mr. Esparza says in his article, "It is time for a change."

Unknown said...

Andy Garcia and the Estevez/Sheens aren't the only Latinos to have been cast in non-latino roles. There are so many more out there if you just do a little digging. Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Catherine Bach (Daisy Duke), Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, Leonor Varela, and even Jennifer Lopez (Wedding Planner) have all played non-latino roles with great success. As long as the actor can pass for the character, physically, and has the talent to portray the character the best, I don't see the big controversy. There was so much controversy surrounding Jennifer Lopez portraying Selena because Jennifer was New-Yorican while Selena was Mexican-American. There was also so much controversy over Philipino actress Lea Salonga portraying the Vietnamese character Kim in Miss Saigon, etc. Where does it all end? Can Whoopi Goldberg play Celia Cruz because she is black but not latina? What no one seems to mention is that FINALLY we are seeing latino characters on the big screen "dat don espeeka eengleesh like-ah dees" and that their stories are being told to the masses. It's refreshing.

city said...

thanks for share..

MoRivera1234 said...

It doesn't matter if Mendez family fought in the civil war he looks straight up Mexican and when you see him with his giant mustache and dark hair he looks even more Chicano.

Look at Sofia Vegara,she has latina curves but she dyes her hair brown to look more ethnic.Yeah with white hair he looks light skin but he has latino features and a latino should have played this role.

They should have gotten Benicio del Toro or something.