Friday, December 28, 2012

Erasing The Brown: Whitewashing of Latino Characters in Film

There has been much talk in the blogosphere recently regarding the 2012 movie Argo, co-produced (with George Clooney and Grant Heslov) and directed by Ben Affleck. Affleck also cast himself as the lead character, Antonio Joseph "Tony" Méndez. He recently expressed his explanation of why he his cast himself in that role and not, say, an actor of Latino heritage, and how he does not think of it as a "whitewashing" of the role.

There have been many instances where a Latino role was offered to a non-Latino actor, especially in the case of Latino historical figures (such as Tony Méndez). Some good examples of this can be found by clicking here or here.

This post does not deal with that so much as it deals with characters in films where characters who were envisioned as Latino becomes such that a viewer watching might have no clue that the character was Latino.


What happens when a character (either historical or fictional) which was originally envisioned as Latino becomes "whitewashed"? Take a look at some of the recent examples below.


The following movies are a showcase of lost opportunities for Latino actors. Oftentimes the desire to hire a "name" actor supersedes the integrity of the role. How can Latino actors become "name" actors if they are not afforded the same opportunities as mainstream (read: Caucasian) actors? Sometimes the director/producer wants to work with a particular actor and will adjust a role to fit the actor. Each case and each movie are different, but the results are still the same. And yet, no one, not even Affleck, has given a reasonable or viable explanation for the curious alterations to the characters as originally written.


Starship Troopers (1997)
• Based on the Hugo Award-winning science fiction/fantasy novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein
• Directed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, previously known for directing RoboCop, Total Instinct, Basic Instinct and Showgirls
• Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects
• Stars Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside
• Movie takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina sometime in the future
• Van Dien’s character, John “Johnny” Rico, was in the novel Juan “Johnnie” Rico, originally Filipino and who apparently goes to high school in Buenos Aires
Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico and
Denise Richards as Carmen Ibáñez
in Starship Troopers (1997)
• Richards’ character, Carmen Ibanez (mispronounced in the movie as IB-uh-nez), was in the novel Carmen “Carmencita” Ibáñez and (seemingly) Argentine
• Meyer’s character, Isabelle “Dizzy” Flores, was in the novel Dizzy Flores (a man) and (seemingly) Argentine
• The only people of color in the movie in significant roles are African American actor Seth Gilliam (who played Sugar Watkins) and Filipino-Spanish-German-Scottish actor Anthony Ruivivar (who played Shujumi)
• Apparently, futuristic Buenos Aires has become quite the cosmopolitan world city, with residents from all parts of the world (cf. Filipino Juan Rico and characters named Jenkins, Zim, Rasczak, Levy, Barcalow, Delad[r]ier, Dienes, Owen, Breckinridge, Meru, Lumbreiser); while quite possible in today’s Buenos Aires (much less a futuristic one), the dearth of Spanish surnames (mispronounced or not) or even Spanish first names is odd (some of these names are in the novel, while others were created for the movie)


While Van Dien and Richards had credits previously, this movie was considered the breakthrough role for both of them. (Neither one was remotely a "name" before this movie.)

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
• Based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of the same name by Sylvia Nasar
• Based on the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 1994
• Directed by Ron Howard, who won the Academy Award for this film
• Written by Akiva Goldsman, who won the Academy Award for this film
• Scored by James Horner, who won the Academy Award for scoring Titanic and co-writing the Best Original Song that same year (“My Heart Will Go On”)
• Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won four, including one for Best Picture
• Stars Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany and Christopher Plummer
• Movie takes place mostly in Princeton, New Jersey (with the final scene in Stockholm, Sweden) between 1947 and 1994
• Jennifer Connelly acted in the film Inventing the Abbotts, a film produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (who also produced A Beautiful Mind)
Left: John and Alicia Nash. Right: Russell Crowe
and Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind (2001)
• Connelly’s character, Alicia Nash in the movie, was born in 1933 in San Salvador, El Salvador as Alicia Esther López-Harrison de Lardé and is called a somewhat neutral Alicia Larde at the movie’s onset and then later Alicia Nash or just Alicia
• The film also doesn’t cover other factual things in the Nash marriage such as the fact that he had a child with another woman or that they divorced after six years of marriage, reunited after seven years (he as her boarder), rekindled their relationship 24 years later and later remarried a full 38 years after they divorced
• Connelly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this role

While a lot of things from the novel were omitted in the movie (presumably for time), why did Alicia Esther López-Harrison de Lardé's national origin have to be one of them? Ironically, Connelly wasn't the producer's first choice for the role; a number of (non-Latina) actresses were considered for or lobbied for the role. Imagine if a Latina actress could have played this (non-stereotypical) role and what it would have done for her career.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
• Based on the short story of the same name by Annie Proulx
• Directed by Ang Lee, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film
• Written by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, who won the Academy Award for this film
• Scored by Gustavo Santaolalla, who won the Academy Award for this film
• Cinematography was shot by Academy Award nominee Rodrigo Prieto, known for his work on 25th Hour, 8 Mile, Frida, Alexander, Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful and Argo
• Director Lee was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. in 1979 to attend college; he was a classmate of fellow filmmaker Spike Lee (no relation)
• Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), the most of any film that year
• Stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams and Randy Quaid
Randy Quaid as Joe Aguirre
in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
• Movie takes place in Wyoming between 1963 and about 1982
• Ledger’s character is named Ennis Del Mar; Quaid’s character is named Joe Aguirre
• Gyllenhaal’s character, after breaking up with Ledger’s character, finds solace with a male prostitute (played by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) in Mexico (might make more sense, visually, if Ledger's character was Mexican/Latino and Gyllenhaal's character liked Latinos)

While Ledger and Gyllenhall had credits before this film, this movie made them Hollywood superstars. The two lead roles were notoriously hard to cast; if the director was looking for name talent, would it have been so difficult to cast Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos as Joe Aguirre?



Drive (2011)
• Based on the novel of the same name by James Sallis
• Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Danish-born and New York-raised (since the age of 11) by director-editor father and cinematographer mother
• Written by Academy Award-nominated Hossein Amini
• Scored by Cliff Martínez, a former drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (and as such, an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
• Stars Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Albert Brooks
• Movie takes place in present-day Los Angeles
Carey Mulligan as the formerly-Latina-
but-now-Caucasian Irene in Drive (2011)




• Academy Award-nominated (for An Education) Mulligan’s character, Irene, was Latina in the novel; director made adjustments in the script to accommodate her; upon first seeing her, director Winding Refn recalled, "I knew we had our 'Irene'... [i]t made it more of a Romeo and Juliet kind of love story without the politics that would in this day and age be brought into it if you had different nationalities or different religions" (this according to the movie's press kit)
• Guatemalan-Cuban actor Oscar Isaac also helped change his character, Standard Gabriel, because he found him unappealing at first (an archetypal, some would say stereotypical, Latino convict)

So having a Caucasian Irene would eliminate the politics of this day and age because of the different nationalities involved, but it was all right for Irene's husband to be Latino and coming out of prison and have a multiracial child with a Caucasian Irene? Because that doesn't bring up any politics of this day and age.



The next example is interesting in that it doesn't remove the ethnicity of a character inasmuch as it removes the ethnicity of a setting.

The Caller (2011)
• Directed by Matthew Parkhill
• Written by Sergio Casci 
• Starring Rachelle Lefevre, Stephen Moyer, Ed Quinn and Luis Guzmán (originally Brittany Murphy was cast in the lead, but she left the production and Lefevre replaced her; this was shortly before Murphy's untimely death)
• Movie takes place in Puerto Rico
According to screenwriter Casci, the film was originally supposed to take place in Glasgow, Scotland and then New York City, before the production company suggested filming it in Puerto Rico
• While great pains are made to introduce why Lefevre and Moyer's characters would be living in Puerto Rico (Lefevre's character is the daughter of an Navy officer who grew up in the now-closed

Stephen Moyer and Rachelle Lefevre
of The Caller (2011) ask each other,
"Where are we?"
Roosevelt Roads naval station; Moyer is a college professor whose Italian parents emigrated to Puerto Rico and whose father got off the boat thinking it was New York), nary a word of Spanish is spoken... by anyone (not even in passing); the words "Puerto Rico" are not even mentioned in the movie
• The only clues that make one realize that the movie takes place in Puerto Rico (besides the wonderful acting talents of Luis Guzmán, Gladys Rodríguez, Alfredo De Quezada, Cordelia González and others), is a supermarket with a Spanish name, a shot of Old San Juan (specifically Calle Norzagaray and near El Morro), and a (very quick) scene of the fiesta patronal of San Juan (at what looks like a generic amusement park)

The fact that no one remotely speaks Spanish there, even in a courtroom or a university (presumably the University of Puerto Rico) scene, reduces the beautiful island of Puerto Rico to Anytown, U.S.A.– or basically, window dressing with some amazing tax breaks.



While these are just a few of the recent examples (the character of Bane of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises comes to mind, but fictional locales and comic book characters and how they translate to the screen is a whole other blog in itself), these are obviously not the only cases of "whitewashing" in Hollywood. So what does one do?

Many things.

Actors, keep auditioning and acting. Writers, keep writing (and should your work become a movie, fight for the integrity of the characters). Directors, keep directing (and telling stories that represent the real world and not a sanitized, romantic, old school Hollywood view). Casting directors, keep casting (and if a character is Latino, present that role in your casting breakdowns as Latino). People with money who care about this issue, produce movies (with honesty for the story, characters and setting). Producers and film studios, take a chance (almost every "name" actor started out as a nobody until they were given the chance). Movie theatergoers, support Latino projects (by seeing the movies and showing the producers and film studios that their taking a chance was worth it).



According to the 2010 U.S. Census, people of Latino/Hispanic heritage make up 17% of the population of the United States (that is a little more than one in every six people). And Latinos/Hispanics go to the movies a lot. That is the power of the dollar. Exercise that power.


Maybe if all the above things can happen, Hollywood would not have to feel the need to erase the brown and stop "whitewashing" roles in Hollywood.



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